Pharmacies operating without licences while Pharmacy Council withholds its services on account of unresolved issues

Head of the Pharmacy Council Michael Joseph
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By Elesha George

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The national pharmaceutical industry has been in a gridlock since members of the Pharmaceutical Council decided to withhold their service until the government can address issues that are negatively affecting the way they carry out their duties.

“If the Pharmacy Council doesn’t function, we will get to a point where pharmaceuticals become scarce and inaccessible to our wholesalers and to our pharmacies, which then and therefore affect the public and public health and public safety,” asserted Michael Joseph, President of the Antigua and Barbuda Pharmacy Council.

“A lot of people rely on medication that we have here, and this is why for so many years we have continued to function even though we do not have the tools that we need,” he added.

Council members have complained about lack of access to transportation and basic stationery. But above all, they want to see legislative change to better regulate the importation and use of pharmaceuticals in Antigua and Barbuda.

Joseph said that the Covid pandemic highlighted “a lot of loopholes” in the current legislation which he stopped short of identifying out of concern that publicising those areas could lead to a greater challenge.

With only two drug inspectors on staff, he recalled that the employees were pushed to their “limit” to meet the demands to validate Covid vaccines.

“There were a lot of demands on the Pharmacy Council as a result of Covid and Covid vaccines, and we were really pushed to our limit as a result of Covid, and we felt that after Covid there should have been some greater understanding and appreciation of the role of the Pharmacy Council, which we don’t think have really and truly been highlighted,” he told Observer.

Those roles include licencing pharmacies and pharmacists to enable them to import medicine into the country.

Pharmacy Council members have been non-functional since April 2022, and in doing so, a number of pharmacies and pharmacists are currently practicing without a valid licence because their annual requirements have not been met.

“With each month that goes by, it’s creating a longer and longer gap between these licences,” said Joseph, adding that “Without the Pharmacy Council we are unable to inspect pharmacies and wholesalers, so there are some pharmaceutical wholesalers whose licences have expired, and this has created challenges with them accessing pharmaceuticals because they need to have a valid licence to present to the suppliers internationally in order to be able to procure.”

In fact, all the pharmacists’ licences expired at the end of May, and about half of the pharmacies’ licences are now expired.

The council is in charge of regulating 25 pharmacies and 10 pharmaceutical wholesalers.

Their absence has also created a lag in the testing of medicinal drugs that are imported into the country.  “We have two major ports – we have the airport and the seaport – and every time somebody comes through with a pharmaceutical by way of our function, we should have someone there to inspect it; to realize it’s not a prescription drug; the person is authorised to have it; it’s not one of these controlled or dangerous substances. So, even the ports are a concern because they are not regulated as they should be,” said Joseph.

In the interim, the Director of Pharmaceutical Services would dispatch a drug inspector or assist the port himself when available.

But this problem is not a recent one, as he told Observer that successive governments have not seen the value in the work of the Council which has driven them to this point. Joseph said that an “entire institutional change” is required to move forward.

“There have been three successive administrations that haven’t understood the importance of the Pharmacy Council and haven’t put anything in place to really strengthen our regulatory role, which at this point in time, has become so critical because access to pharmaceuticals is becoming a lot easier and without having these basic things to allow us to regulate it properly, there is greater risk to the public,” he stated.

From since 1995, the Pharmacy Council has been without the resources it needs to function, including office space which has forced its members to purchase and use their own stationery like printers and basic office supplies. The Covid pandemic forced the council out of the Ministry of Health’s conference room, and so they retired to having meetings via Zoom. The Council has also not been paid their monthly stipends for parts of 2020, 2021 and 2022.

According to Joseph, “Before we were owed stipends dating back as far as 2019. The government has since made some payments to bring it up until the end of 2020, but however we still have a request for at least for some more payments to be made so that we can continue again, because a lot of the resources that we use are actually purchased out of our own pockets.”

“It just came to a point where we’ve raised the issue and we’ve been having dialogue with the current minister since 2020, and the minister has made commitments to address some of these things, and we’ve just gotten to the point where we can no longer continue to function just because pharmaceuticals are changing so rapidly, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to regulate it,” the president shared.

Joseph said in December 2020, the council received commitment from Cabinet to supply them with the resources that they need, but there has been no follow up to ensure that it was done. They continue to have regular dialogue with the health ministry to remedy these issues and get back to work.

But what they want is for the laws that regulate the function of the Council to be updated before they can resume work. Joseph said they would also like for the government to acknowledge the significant role of the Council and  give a commitment with timelines as to when specific requests are going to be delivered.

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