BEIRUT: Supplies of certain prescription drugs that have bypassed the Health Ministry’s registration process have been halted in a drive by the ministry to regulate the industry. Around 3,500 drugs, roughly 15 percent of prescription drugs available, have previously been authorized for import with a signature from the minister, a system designed for the import of only emergency life-saving drugs.
The method means unregistered drugs have bypassed quality and price controls imposed by the ministry during its drug registration process.
Since taking his post Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil has worked to ensure all drugs go through the correct legal registration process, according to May Kanso, the head of export and import at the Health Ministry.
As part of this, the import of “very few,” drugs has been halted at Lebanese Customs, according to Armand Phares, the head of the Association of Importers of Medicines in Lebanon.
The exact number of drug supplies affected by the process is not clear but pharmacists report that supplies of NorLevo, for example, the only brand of emergency contraception imported into the country, have been off the shelves for several months. One pharmacy in Beirut reported a tripling in the number of people looking for the drug and said it had resorted to bringing it from Belgium to maintain supply.
Phares said it was difficult to understand why Khalil would halt the supplies, given that the drugs had been signed off by the previous minister.
“It really makes no sense,” he said. “Unless he has good reason to have suspicion about their quality.”
But he praised the minister’s drive to ensure all pharmaceutical drugs are registered. “It’s essential,” he said. “We want quality drugs for our people.”
Ziad Nassour, the head of the order of pharmacists, described the system by which unregistered drugs come into the country as “causing chaos in Lebanon” due to the lack of quality control.
Nassour said the process would bring the country to global standards of drug analysis.
The registration process will also bring down the prices of several drugs, setting them based on the regional and global averages.
But pharmaceutical agents for several drugs are unwilling to register them through official channels due, according to Kanso, to the relatively small size of the Lebanese market. The ministry will continue to import all critical life-saving drugs with the minister signing off on those which have not been registered. This includes Aromasin, a drug used to target breast cancer.
Kanso said the process was being conducted with consideration for the availability of critical non-registered drugs, but the public has otherwise not been informed in advance that supplies of drugs currently undergoing registration might be limited or nonexistent, and pharmacists who spoke to The Daily Star were unaware that the process was ongoing. The registration process for a drug takes between six months and a year to complete.
Since assuming his post in June last year, Khalil has made it a key policy to regulate Lebanon’s haphazard pharmaceutical market, introducing in December a standardized prescription form that will become mandatory for pharmacists to receive before selling drugs.