A senior pharmacist in Uganda says that the country needs to seriously consider adopting modern biotechnology tools not only for agricultural improvement but also for purposes of facilitating the production of highly demanded inputs into the pharmaceutical industry worldwide.
Samuel Opio, a senior pharmacist with Cipla/Quality Chemicals Ltd and the Secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda has urged the government to widen its scope of the Biotechnology Bill being considered by Parliament to beyond agriculture, to include provisions for commercial development of pharmaceutical and veterinary products and drugs.
Opio argues that the drug industry world over has dramatically evolved from the use of chemical-based remedies to protein-based drugs which are produced using the science of biotechnology.
“The most widely used procedure now involves the use of recombinant genes’. Desired characteristics are added to a persons’ DNA to address certain health conditions,” said Opio.
Opio adds that the increased importance of lifestyle diseases or non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases these days has given way to innovations that target a human being’s DNA in order to influence behaviour.
“Fortunately, development of these protein-based drugs requires less capital compared to the huge investment needed in setting up chemical-based drug factories,” said Opio.
With Uganda’s Shilling continuing to weaken against all major international currencies because of weak exports, Opio’s revelation could provide timely solution to boost the country’s flagging exports.
Opoi says the scope of the bill should be expanded to take encompass pharmaceutical sector which would increase Uganda’s export capacity by developing highly demanded inputs into the industry.
“All the current vaccines being developed or tested in the country are products of biotechnology. And most of the nutritional supplements on the market are derived using biotechnology,” noted Opio.
A number of Ugandans were recently recruited to participate in a trial Ebola vaccine. Opio says the vaccine was developed using biotechnology by extracting a gene from Tobacco and adding it to a deactivate Ebola virus.
Apart from providing an environment for testing vaccines, Opio says Uganda should allow the technology to develop GM products that are demanded by the pharmaceutical sector. He cited maize, artemisia annua – a compound used in the production of anti-malarial drugs, and eucalyptus plants as examples of crops that can be specifically developed to produce exports with high value.
Uganda has been debating the introduction of biotechnology for now over three years but has failed to pass a law to regulate the science of Genetic Modification (GM) which experts say would offer solutions to a number of crop diseases and environmental stresses affecting farmers.
The proposed Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 has however faced stiff resistance from the civil society with critics arguing that it would increase the influence of multinational seed companies and erode the independence of local farmer.
Ugandan scientists have rejected that criticism by saying that the existing GM products such as bananas that are resistant to wilt, or cassava that is resistant to root rot or Cassava brown streak, are of no commercial interest to multinationals because they are vegetatively propagated.
Ugandan agricultural scientists further argue that the country needs a law not only to develop solutions to the country’s challenges but also to safeguard against undesired biotech products from other countries.