Bangladesh's pharmaceutical industry managed to grow its exports in the just-concluded fiscal year on the back of a steady demand for medicines during the coronavirus-induced economic and health crises, which have decimated other major export sectors.
"Pharmaceutical products are essential for all countries. That is why the industry's exports did not decline amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Rather, it rose," said Ananta Saha, international business manager of Renata.
Pharmaceutical shipments soared 4.49 per cent year-on-year to $136 million in fiscal 2019-20 following improvements in product quality and policy support.
The industry is one of the handful of sectors that ended the fiscal year in the black. National exports fell 16.93 per cent.
The sector fetched $130 million in export earnings in fiscal 2018-19 and $103.46 million in fiscal 2017-18.
One of the major manufacturers and exporters, Renata ships products to 27 countries and sells nutrition products in bulk quantity to the Unicef for distribution in African countries.
"Although we were unable to approach our clients personally, buyers supported us by communicating online to place fresh orders," Saha said.
Renata achieved its export target for the just-concluded fiscal year.
The pandemic prompted medicine-makers to introduce digital marketing as a new avenue for sales. However, it is difficult to gauge future market demand for pharmaceuticals since all fairs and seminars related to the industry have been put on hold or cancelled to prevent mass infections, Saha said.
Bangladesh is currently exporting medicines to many countries across four continents, including a few highly regulated markets in the European Union and Australia, said Mohammad Mujahidul Islam, director for marketing and sales at Eskayef Bangladesh, another pharmaceuticals company.
Numerous regulatory bodies -- the European Union Good Manufacturing Practice, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency of the UK, the Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia, the United Arab Emirates Good Manufacturing Practice and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate of the UK -- approved Eskayef's state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.
"This only reinforced the company's high standards for quality, safety and efficacy. For this reason, Eskayef's exports have increased," he said.
Although the country's export earnings from the sector are still comparatively insignificant, it has good potential in the global market. The domestic pharmaceuticals market is dominated by six major players.
Square Pharmaceuticals leads the pack with an 18.8 per cent market share, while Incepta comes in second with 10.2 per cent.
Beximco is in the third position with 8.5 per cent share, followed by Opsonin 5.6 per cent, Renata 5.1 per cent and Eskayef 4.5 per cent, data from the Bangladesh Association of Pharmaceutical Industries showed.
Sanofi and Novo Nordisk also have a notable presence in the segment for specialised products.
Bangladesh ships pharmaceutical products to 144 countries after meeting 98 per cent demand of the growing domestic market.
"Foreign buyers are constantly visiting our factories to examine production quality and more often than not, they place orders before leaving," said Saha.
Monjurul Alam, director for global business development at Beacon Pharmaceuticals, said that the company exports its products to 141 countries, including some in the EU.
Demand has increased after Bangladesh's pharmaceutical industry became capable of producing advanced medicine such as bio-similar drugs, vaccines and oncology products as well as various medical apparatuses.
Beacon ships oncology products to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia and a few African nations, Alam said.
"However, export volumes are still low. So, we should grab the regulated market to increase shipment sizes," he added.
Alam estimates that the sector has a domestic market value of about Tk 22,000 crore.
In 2012, the local market size stood at around Tk 9,390 crore. By 2017, it doubled to Tk 18,755 crore, according to a report of the IMS Health Care.
Prof Syed Modasser Ali, chairman of the Bangladesh Medical Research Council, said the pharmaceutical sector has huge potential for exports as local companies are rapidly adopting sophisticated technologies to ensure quality products.
"The export of Bangladeshi medicine would increase more if the commerce, finance, and foreign affairs ministries cooperate proactively to expand its presence in the global market," he said.
The economic or commercial councillors of Bangladesh embassies abroad should contribute in this regard, the former health adviser to the prime minister said.
Local medicine consumption is increasing in line with the country's economic growth and growing awareness of treatments, he added.
With a compound annual growth rate of 15.6 per cent, the sector is predicted to grow to $5.11 billion by 2023, according to LightCastle Partners.