In this engaging interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, Dr Linus Igwemezie, the executive vice president and head of the Novartis Malaria Initiative, spoke on several pressing issues regarding the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry, including vital lessons local companies can learn from foreign ones. He also highlighted the challenges some companies face with the implementation of the Mobile Authentication Service (MAS) technology, as well as the reasons Novartis introduced an academy to train Nigerian pharmacists in the private sector.
Tell us about your background
As a young Nigerian, I spent the better part of my primary and secondary education here in the country. I also did my B.Pharm. degree at the University of Ife (Now Faculty of Pharmacy, Obafemi Awolowo University). I then left for North America for my graduate studies and obtained both a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. I also added an MBA from the Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA.
Were there some local companies you worked with before opting for Novartis Pharma?
I started working for mega pharmaceutical companies like Merckin Montreal, Canada; then Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), New Jersey,USA,and Novartis Pharma, New Jersey, USA. I have had the good fortune of working on some of the most innovative new drugs that have been introduced in the last two decades. For example, I worked on HIV/AIDs programmes while I was at BMS and both Videx and Zerit came out of those programmes. At Novartis, we introduced several anti-cancer drugs, including Glivec, Zometa, Femara, Tasigna, Jakavi and Afinitor.These drugs are helping to improve outcomes, transforming the lives of patients living with cancer around the world.
In January 2012, I was appointed Executive Vice President and Head of the Novartis Malaria Initiative.
What is it like for a Nigerian to be a vice president of global brands at Novartis?
Novartis is a very diverse company. You have to be at the top of your game and be able to deliver on your objectives; but the company is committed to investing in its people. The key for me is that, since I have a lot of training and experience, I am able to do the parts that are assigned to me, and more. The better you work, the more you are given.
Also, I have been lucky to work with a wonderful team of people over the years and to have mentors who have positively influenced my career.
What factors did you consider before joining Novartis?
When I completed my MBA in 2000, I was looking for an entrepreneurial environment. I actually considered going to work for a medium-sized biotech company where I could make a big impact, but Novartis was building the oncology business unit at the same time. The design was a small company that would operate like a biotech but with the backing of the big company. They told me they had what I was looking for and asked if I could join them.
I decided to join Novartis Oncology in 2001 and it has turned out great for me. What I have learnt in Novartis is how to develop drugs – what key information is needed, what structures and teams, the strategy and decision-making process in a very complex environment. These are invaluable experiences if you are going to be a leader in the pharma industry.
What is your assessment of the pharmaceutical industry in the Western world compared to the Nigerian situation?
Clearly, in the West, things are well organised. You know, they have been doing this for so many years, much longer than us. There are a number of issues I see in Nigeria. First, there is excessive fragmentation in the drug distribution system – too many players involved, some of whom are not qualified. This clearly lends itself to infiltration of the system with substandard drugs, as well as counterfeits. Second, in the Western countries, the drug regulations are better developed and there is strong regulatory enforcement. Third, in Nigeria,there is limited availability of human talent, technology, infrastructure (e.g. power) necessary to do the complex work of pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing. Finally, there is more restricted access to investment capital compared to Western countries.
How best do you think we can resolve these issues?
I think we can strengthen the regulatory oversight, including strong enforcement. We need to continue to improve pharmaceutical and scientific education to ensure availability of necessary human talent. We must invest in pharmaceutical R&D through the entire value chain – preclinical research, clinical research, product development and manufacturing.
I would suggest that local companies should pay attention to innovation and value-added activities. There is no point coming into the market as the thirtieth producer of Panadol; you will not be widely successful.
What measures is Novartis taking to ensure Coartem is not faked or cloned?
Novartis takes the issue of counterfeits and fake drugs seriously and we have a broad strategy in place to address this. We work closely with governments, donors, funders and law enforcement agencies to investigate any report of counterfeits or fake drugs. We also have a product security team that carry out continuous surveillance so that any kind of report we get, we analyse it and pass on the information to the law enforcement agents. We use technology available to us, and we also educate our customers to ensure that they obtain Coartem through our designated supply chain.
We continue to be vigilant, constantly searching for new approaches and looking at all of the options available to us, so it is not just one solution but a number of activities that are designed to deter counterfeiters from faking Coartem.
The Mobile Authentication Service (MAS) has been suggested as an ideal anti-counterfeiting measure for drug manufacturers in Nigeria. Unfortunately, not many pharmaceutical companies are keen to embrace the technology. What is your take on this?
Well, we have agreed to use the MAS in Nigeria to meet the local regulatory requirements. But implementing this is not as easy as it sounds; there are many complexities to think about. For one, it is new and a lot of companies are not used to having an additional label on their packaging with information being controlled by somebody outside the company. This is the first time we are going to have such a thing on one of our brands.
There is also the concern that the MAS directive will not be enforced.Manycompanies worry about making the investment needed for the implementation of MAS, but if it is ultimately not imposed, it puts the company at a competitive disadvantage.
Also the added cost of including MAS in the packaging may be passed on to the consumer which would increase the price of drugs. Another reason is related to the issue of added complexity for the manufacturing plant.When you add the MAS for Nigerian products only, the plant would see this as a different packaging, thereby stopping the regular production and loading the Nigerian specific packaging, which slows things down.
In the face of stiff competition from other multinational companies, how does a company like Novartis manage to stay afloat?
Novartis’ success is driven by a number of factors. As a company, we differentiate ourselves from our competitors through a strong focus on innovation. In 2012, we invested 21 per cent of pharmaceuticals net sales in R&D. We also have six divisions that offer a wide array of products, including novel pharmaceuticals, high quality generic products, vaccines, over-the-counter, animal health, and eye care products. These divisions are leaders in their categories.For example, our generics division, Sandoz, is the second largest producer of generic drugs worldwide. In fact, Sandoz is well positioned to provide high quality, affordable generic drugs to the Nigerian market.
If you put all of these together, you are really building a brand that is known for innovation, quality and a diverse portfolio. These are some of the ingredients for success. It is more likely that Novartis will bring the next brilliant malaria drug into the market. That is what I am working on.
What lessons can local pharmaceutical companies learn from global brands like Novartis?
Again, I need to say this. The local guys (manufacturers) need to understand that to be successful, you cannot continue to be a local player. You have to be able to play at a quality standard that is international. Look at the Indian manufacturers.They are now major suppliers of generic products to Western countries. You have to be able to do some R&D and make investment in your people so you have the necessary talent pool.
We heard Novartis has launched its first academy for pharmacists in the private sector in Nigeria. What’s the essence of this?
The pharmacy academy is a value-added service for pharmacists who sell our antimalarial drug, Coartem, to strengthen their knowledge in the areas of prevention, diagnosis and testing, and treatment of malaria. It is a pilot programme geared towards capacity building. Again, we believe that just selling drugs is not enough. You ought to teach people how to use itso that you can maximise the value.
Is it a programme you hope to sustain?
We piloted it to see whether people want it and the result was just overwhelming – extremely positive! So we will maintain and even expand it. You asked me earlier how Novartis succeeds;one of the ways is through innovative, value adding programmes such as this.