Virus lockdown spells doom for drug industry

Friday March 27 2020

Laikipia health officers screen passengers for coronavirus on Meru-Nanyuki highway on March 25, 2022. PHOTO | JAMES MURIMI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The coronavirus pandemic and measures to prevent its spread have disrupted the import and the flow of drugs into the country hence increasing a potential drug shortage.

The disease is exposing vulnerability in how Kenya gets its drugs, but potential backlogs really depend on the course of the virus.

According to a directive by the Ministry of Health, the country is likely to experience a huge shortage of the essential medicines - including paracetamol, cough syrup and antibiotics - if nothing is done.

How worried should Kenyans be? The answer largely depends on how long these disruptions continue in China and whether the outbreak becomes widespread in other countries critical to the drug supply chain, including India.

Tracking coronavirus

However, as China plans to lift the lockdown, there are hopes that things might get back to normal though it might take time.


With or without the pandemic, drug shortages are a perennial problem in Kenya. However, such a crisis can threaten to make things worse.


Figures seen by the Nation indicate 83 per cent of drugs consumed locally are imported, with only 17 per cent being manufactured in the country.

India supplies 35 per cent of Kenya’s imports. However, the country relies fully on China for active ingredients in antibiotics and heart medicines, among other drugs.

But fears of potential shortages have emerged again after India gazetted Wednesday a notification prohibiting with immediate effect the exportation of hydroxychloroquine and formulation made from hydroxychloroquine.

The notification, with the subject amendment in Export Policy of Hydroxychloroquine, said that the export will only be allowed to other countries on humanitarian grounds on a case basis on the recommendation of Ministry of External Affairs.

It also states that export will be allowed in case of shipment where Irrevocable Letter of Credit has been issued before the date of notification, or in case where full advance payment has been received by the exporter in India against the specific shipment, subject to the submission of documentary evidence.


This is one of the drugs that the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (Kemsa) had requested the Ministry of Health to clear them to purchase immediately the country recorded its first Covid-19 case in March 13.

However, we could not reach Kemsa CEO Jonah Mwangi to comment on whether the country has enough stock.

A spot check by the Nation in most pharmacies and chemists revealed a sudden spike in demand for the prescription medication hydroxychloroquine.

This seems to have driven the drug underground as chemists rush to stock it in a bid to boost their profit.

In some, the drug was out of stock, others selling exorbitantly while others are adhering to Pharmacy and Poisons Board directive that the drug should be sold on prescription.

In one of the chemists, a dose goes for Sh1,300 while a tablet costs Sh30

“Before the drug ran out, we used to sell a box of 30 pills at 1,500. The recommended dosage is usually one pill per day,” said a pharmacist at Lira Pharmacist on Munyu Road.

“You cannot find the drug in the city. Haven’t you heard that it is effective at treating the coronavirus disease?” said a pharmacist at Benfos Chemist on Mfangano Street.


The pharmacists’ move could largely be attributed to comments made by US President Donald Trump on the efficacy of the drug.

In his press briefings, President Trump has been stressing on the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, combined with the antibiotic azithromycin, in treating Covid-19 patients.

His comments are based on a small research that had a number of challenges, but is being taken as gospel truth by many who are now eager to stock up the drug.