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Bangladesh is taking on increased prominence in the pharma industry with ambitious plans to export Made-in-Bangladesh medicines all over the world. The country, located east of India on the Bay of Bengal, has undergone a dramatic rise in export earnings over the past half-decade. Five years ago, Bangladesh’s annual earnings from exporting medicines was BDT 3 billion. In just the first half of the 2015-16 fiscal year, Bangladesh had already reached that level (around US$38 million) from exporting medicines, according to media reports.

The phenomenal growth of the sector stands in sharp contrast to just 20 years ago when the country imported 75% of its pharmaceutical products. Today, that ratio is reversed with 97% of Bangladesh's drug needs being filled locally, leaving only 3% of drugs being imported. Moreover, Bangladesh has leveraged that industry ramp-up to the point that it now exports medicines to 90 countries in Europe and the Middle East. More growth is projected with the opening of the U.S. market to Bangladesh-made drugs, likely driving a several-fold increase in export income. The former Bangladesh Bank governor, Mohammed Farashuddin, said export medicines to the U.S. alone could potentially reach US $10 billion if the government offers improved policy support and incentives.

Some experts attribute the spectacular growth to favorable government policy and a special focus on producing quality products. In particular, two issues have been a driving force for pharmaceutical export market in Bangladesh. They include:

  • a relaxation on intellectual property rights granted by the WTO for the least developed countries until 2033
  • 2 Bangladeshi companies – Square Pharmaceuticals and Beximco Pharma – obtaining FDA accreditation in June 2015. Other companies are expected to follow suit.

The first driver is particularly key going forward. Because Bangladesh can manufacture and sell medicines for another 17 years without spending on intellectual property rights, the country may reap the maximum benefits from the relaxation granted by WTO. With Incepta Pharmaceuticals, for example, touting that it can profitably produce a generic version of a hepatitis C drug Sovaldi at 1% of the actual price of the patent drug (which is US $1,000 per pill), medical tourism is likely to rise too. Industry growth is expected to create employment opportunities for pharmacists, chemists, microbiologists and physicians. What this means for industry, however, will largely be dependent on whether medical tourism actually materializes in Bangladesh and whether patients from other parts of the world flock there for cheaper alternatives.

At the same time, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Sanofi have established plants in Bangladesh that will produce vaccines, oncology therapies and other high-cost therapies in Bangladesh. With these pharmaceutical plants, an industrial park could be up and running in a couple of years as well. In addition to direct export operations, there is a massive opportunity for the Bangladeshi companies to opt for contract manufacturing and compulsory licensing opportunities.

Bangladesh has moved to transform its position in the pharmaceutical industry over the past two decades. As these trends continue, Bangladesh’s role in the global pharmaceutical market will evolve and grow.

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