Over the four decades of its journey, Bangladesh's pharmaceutical sector has evolved as a strong industry that is capable of meeting 98 percent of local demand that amounted to around $3 billion in 2019.
Bangladesh is now the only least-developed country among 47 nations that has a well-developed pharmaceutical sector that can produce medicines for cancer diseases and biological products such as insulin and vaccines.
The country is also doing well in exports in recent years and exported medicines worth $136 million to 151 countries in the just-concluded fiscal year.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has opened up a new window of opportunity for local drug makers as the demand for antiviral drug remdesivir is increasing worldwide in the absence of a vaccine or other drugs that can effectively treat Covid-19 patients.
"We have permitted six companies for the export," said Ayub Hossain, spokesman at the Directorate of Drug Administration that regulates the drug makers in Bangladesh.
In early May, the Directorate General of Drug Administration gave permission to six pharmaceutical companies to produce remdesivir, a potential Covid-19 drug.
The companies are Beximco, Beacon, Eskayef (SK-F), Incepta, Square and Healthcare. However, Beximco produced the drug first in the country. It has a history to work well against the SARS and Ebola virus.
Three among these six companies have already begun exporting the drug, which is being used on Covid-19 patients in several countries, including the United States.
Beximco has already exported the medicine to at least to six countries – Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Venezuela and Lebanon.
"We are getting export queries from many countries. But our priority is to serve the needs of the local market," said Rabbur Reza, chief operating officer at Beximco Pharma.
Reza said they have so far exported around 50,000 units (vials) of Bemsivir (remdesivir).
Beximco is trying to export remdesivir to around 30 countries, he added.
Currently, Beximco is capable of producing 80,000 vials of Bemsivir per month, which the company wants to double by next month, he said.
Eskayef has also exported the medicine to some countries and Beacon has got approval from the authorities to export it.
"We are going to sign a deal to export remdesivir to Iraq," said Ebadul Karim, managing director at Beacon Pharmaceuticals.
Karim also said they have received requests from a dozen countries from Asia, Latin America and Africa for its export.
"We are capable of exporting the drug after meeting the local demand," he said.
According to industry insiders, the export price for per vial remdesivir stands at $55 to $65, which is Tk5,500 (maximum retail price) in the local market. So, Beximco's export earnings would stand at around $3 million.
However, local drug makers cannot go for a blanket export as they have to take prior approval for the export of remdesivir. But such permission is not mandatory for the export of favipiravir, another medicine being used to treat Covid-19 patients in some countries.
Market players said Bangladeshi companies are increasingly getting known to the world for its medicine, which will ultimately help them boost export.
To boost exports, local drug makers are conducting clinical studies for more and more products so that their exports become easy.
Clinical trials are the primary way by which researchers find out if a new drug is safe and effective in human body.
Various companies in the country are now conducting clinical researches on around 300 products, mostly in the laboratories of foreign countries as Bangladesh does not have the capacity to do so.
Abdul Muktadir, chairman and managing director of Incepta Pharmaceuticals, said they are carrying out clinical research on around 30 products.
"But that is not enough. We need to do clinical research on more products if we want to boost exports," he said.
Reza of Beximco said they will set up a laboratory for carrying out clinical tests of medicine in one or two years.
The pharmaceutical market of Bangladesh has doubled once every five years since 2010. However, the novel coronavirus pandemic is now threatening to derail that spectacular achievement of the industry led by local players.
Back in 2010, the size of the pharmaceutical market was $852 million and it reached $1.64 billion after five years, according to the Bangladesh Association of Pharmaceutical Industries (BAPI), a forum of drug makers.
The market had grown to around $3 billion before the pandemic hit businesses in April this year.
Research and Markets, a Dublin-headquartered firm, predicted in a report last week that Bangladesh's pharmaceutical industry will grow at an average of 12 percent per year for the next five years and take the market size to more than $6 billion by 2025.
The report said the majority of this growth would be contributed by local companies with a market share of more than 90 percent. The share of generic drugs will be over 85 percent in 2025 from around 75 percent now, it states.
Bangladeshi companies depend on imports to meet 95 percent of the raw materials. So, the country will be able to save foreign currency once the API Park starts functioning, industry players said.