Monday, September 25, being World Pharmacists Day as declared by the International Pharmaceutical Federation, it would be a healthy move to reflect on how the national unity government is implementing the Seneka Bibile Policy to make quality medicinal drugs available to the people at affordable prices.
Earlier this year, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne in a dynamic move significantly slashed the prices of almost 50 essential drugs through the National Medicinal Regulatory Authority (NMRA) headed by Pharmacologist Asitha De Silva. The minister also provided hundreds of millions of rupees worth of essential equipment to public hospitals while stents are provided free.
Recently, the ministry set up two big public-private companies to manufacture a large number of essential drugs ensuring they conform to the Bibile principals of quality, safety, efficacy, the cost of the drug and the need for it. Dr. Senaratne told a meeting on Wednesday he was facing threats from the drug mafia, apparently comprising agents or bosses of giant transnational pharmaceutical corporations. He had said earlier that this mafia was believed to be responsible for the death of Dr. Bibile in 1978.
According to the minister, above 30 other public-private companies will be set up next year so that within one year, Sri Lanka could manufacture the essential drugs we need with priority given to quality, safety and efficacy. This would help Sri Lanka to save hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable foreign exchange that we spend every year in importing more than ten thousand varieties of drugs, most of them non-essential and some under highly-expensive brand names. For instance, NMRA officials say we import about hundred varieties of the antibiotic Amoxicillin at prices ranging from Rs. 5 to Rs. 100 a capsule, though the substance is essentially the same.
The effective implementation of Professor Seneka Bibile’s national medicinal drugs policy comes 40 years after the then Sri Lanka government scrapped the policy -- under pressure from the United States Government which in turn was known to be under pressure from giant transnational pharmaceutical corporations. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government, elected in July 1970, had asked Professor Bibile and Communist Party Leader Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe to formulate a national medicinal drugs policy. They acted fast and by 1971, the draft Bill was prepared and passed by parliament. As a result, the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) was set up with Prof. Bibile as its first chairman. The main role of the SPC was to import quality drugs at affordable prices while the State Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing Corporation (SPMC) was set up to manufacture medicinal drugs here.
The process went on well despite subtle acts of sabotage by agents of the drug mafia. According to reliable information, in 1976, the US Government sent a letter to Prime Minister Bandaranaike, warning that if she did not scrap the Bibile Policy, the US would stop the supply of wheat flour at subsidised prices in terms of a law known as the PL 480. The Prime Minister called Prof. Bibile to her official residence and being aware of the drug mafia’s coup plot, he knew what was coming. He called his “golaya” Dr. K. Balasubramaniyam and together they went to the PM’s residence. She told them in sadness that while she saw the great value of the Bibile Policy, she had no option but to scrap it because of the threat from the US Government and the drug mafia. Sadly, Prof. Bibile also tendered his resignation and went to British Guiana, where he died in mysterious circumstances. Dr. Balasubramaniyam, assisted by others including the People’s Movement for the Rights of Patients (PMRP), continued the Bibile mission though the drug mafia put much pressure on them.
Dr. Senaratne has vowed that though Prof. Bibile was killed and Dr. Balasubramaniyam virtually driven to desperation and death, he was not afraid and he hoped the national government would assist him fully in implementing the Bibile Policy for a people-friendly health service, where the well-being of the patients would be given priority.