The House of Representatives yesterday ordered an immediate investigation into claims that Chinese drugs manufacturers might be smuggling medicines containing human parts into the country.
The move followed a recent alert by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), warning people to beware of bizarre substances from the Asian country.
Part of a memo the NIA sent to Nigeria’s watchdog agencies had read: “The South Korean Customs Service on September 30, 2018, revealed that it had seized 2,751 Chinese drugs/capsules, containing human remains from foetuses, infants and flesh imported into the country by some Chinese nationals. It stressed that the making of the human remain drugs and consuming them are crimes against humanity, which can also lead to serious health challenges.”
Adopting a motion under matters of urgent national importance sponsored by Emmanuel Agbonayinma (Edo, APC), the House stressed the need to identify persons behind the trade with a view to making them face the wrath of the law.
It therefore mandated its committees on Health Services, Women Affairs and Social Development, Information, National Orientation, and Ethics and Values to interface with officials of the Nigeria Customs Service (NIS), the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the NIA, to look into the matter.
The motion was taken by unanimous consent, in spite of effort by Chairman of the House Committee on Rules and Business Orker-Jev Yisa (Benue, PDP) to stop its passage. Yisa had argued that a fresh investigation was unnecessary, since bodies like NAFDAC and security agencies were already working on the issues.
This is not the first time China has been in the eye of the storm over its exports. In 2007, Panamanian Eduardo Arias discovered that toothpaste sold in his country was labeled as containing Diethylene glycol (DEG), the same ingredient that had tainted cough syrup and killed 138 Panamanians in 2006. Panamanian officials discovered the toothpaste came from China and initiated a global response.
There has been a lack of clear standards and guidelines from relevant government departments such as the China Food and Drug Administration, said Yazan Saleh, associate analyst at Decision Resources Group in Toronto, Canada. “In recent years, more regulations have been put in place but the question of enforcement of these remains a challenge,” he noted.
According to him, that combines with a highly fragmented pharmaceutical market with over 5000 Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) makers in China, of which around 500 are exporters. Many small manufacturers can’t afford to comply with regulations, Saleh said, adding that some companies resort to “cutting corners” to remain competitive.
In a telephone interview with The Guardian, Minister of Health Prof. Isaac Adewole said: “We are working on the report. We have instituted a probe to get to the truth. The NIA did not copy us but we have started a measured investigation.”
NAFDAC Director General Prof. Christiana Moji Adeyeye clarified: “The report said the capsules were in hundreds of thousands. But usually, we don’t make medicines in thousands but in millions, which means that this must be something small. It may be traditional medicine. It is not usual drugs that manufacturers will make. I am in contact with my counterpart in China and she told me (it’s) Placenta Hominis that they know about and that it has been used in South East Asia for a long time. It is the same placenta discarded after a woman delivers.
“But if that is the case, the drugs may be adulterated. So, the first thing is that it is likely traditional medicine. Secondly, if it is human remains, it is adulterated. Thirdly, we have to be on the lookout because we have never approved anything like that. We still have to be more vigilant.”
She explained further: “Since it is a small volume, it is not something that you get from Apapa Wharf. It may be coming in through speed couriers. The most important thing is that what is good for South East Asia might not be good for us when they interact with the body. And culturally, we are not the type of people that use human parts as medicine.”
The NAFDAC DG said all the agency’s zonal and state coordinators have been alerted to keep an eye on hawkers. “Don’t buy your medicines from hawkers; go to a pharmacy,” she said.
On ways to curb the flow of contaminated or substandard medicines from China, promote local drug production and reduce dependence on imported medicines, President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria Ahmed Yakasai called for improved implementation of the National Drug Policy and the National Drug Distribution Guidelines.
Efforts by The Guardian to get the Chinese ambassador’s reaction proved abortive. The press secretary to the ambassador, Mr. Wan, however said he knew nothing about the affair, promising to get back to The Guardian. He had not as at press time.