Only leading pharmaceutical companies could translate pandemic blues into higher sales, while most small ones witnessed a slump in their businesses owing to being lesser-known brands, virus-led raw material crunch and a jeopardised marketing chain.
With drug businesses surging by more than 17% in the coronavirus pandemic, the country's pharma sector had witnessed drug sales rise by Tk4,000 crore to Tk27,000 crore from May 2020 to March 2021, according to the US-based health information technology and clinical research firm IQVIA.
Take for Sylhet-based Silco Pharma that had been registering more than 20% steady growth for three years before Covid-19 broke out in Bangladesh in March last year.
The company, which started the journey in 1996, registered a 12% fall in sales and saw its annual profit plunge by 50% in the first nine months of the fiscal 2020-21, according to Dhaka Stock Exchange data.
Sector people said sales of prescription-based drugs plummeted as most doctors suspended private practice because of infection fears in the pandemic.
During the prolonged period marked by a series of lockdowns, people would turn up at drug stores to buy medicines that go by popular brand names. Leading drug-makers exploited the surge in the over-the-counter sales – that resulted in even 30% sales growth for the pharma giants while sales of the smaller firms sank to around 50% compared to regular times.
There are 269 drug-makers in Bangladesh, of which only 20-25 big pharmas put up an impressive performance in the pandemic time.
SM Shafiuzzaman, secretary general of the Bangladesh Association of Pharmaceutical Industries, said suspension of private practice and restriction on marketing representatives' movement deterred the smaller firms from retaining their market positions.
"As people bought medicines of familiar brands over the counter, companies that were already in the leading position before the pandemic fared better," he noted.
Tingku Ranjan Sarker, company secretary of Silco Pharma, echoed Shafiuzzaman on promotional marketing. On top of this, he said the pandemic jeopardised the supply of active pharmaceutical ingredients.
The sales of Barishal-based Rephco Pharmaceuticals – a drug-maker that has been in the market for more than 50 years – dropped to Tk50 crore in 2020 from previous year's Tk80 crore.
"Our sales have reduced by 40%-50% since the beginning of the pandemic," said Jahidul Alom Jewel, director of Rephco Pharmaceuticals and one of the owners of the firm.
"Due to the repeated lockdowns during the last one and a half years, our marketing and promotion officers could not visit doctors and medicine shops regularly, which is the main reason behind the massive drop in sales," he added.
Like Silco and Rephco, another small-scale drug-maker Advent Pharma reported a 20% fall in sales in the first three quarters of the fiscal 2020-21.
Top 10 firms account for 71% pharma sales
According to the IQVIA, as much as 71% of the drugs at the end of March this year were manufactured by top 10 pharma giants in Bangladesh. The market share of these firms amounted to below 69% even a year ago. The companies expanded their market by ramping up the production of Covid treating drugs such as remdesivir, ivermectin and azithromycin.
Officials at the companies said they have boosted up the supply and sales of food supplements as the pandemic has spiralled the demand for minerals and vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin D – that are believed to strengthen immune defence against coronavirus infection.
The officials said they focused on retaining the confidence of doctors, and the management of the newly emerged Covid drug market – that eventually led them to better sales performance.
Take for leading drug-maker Square Pharmaceuticals with a 17% market share. From April 2020 to March 2021, the firm posted 23.35% business growth as its sales, according to IQVIA, amounted to Tk4,715 crore during the period.
Apart from drug sales on the back of Covid, a Square Pharmaceutical top official attributed people's growing purchasing power to surging drug sales.
"Many people would not visit a doctor even 10 years ago to cut down on medical bills. But with an improved purchasing power, now they spend more on treatments, which ultimately has raised drug sales," the official explained.
According to IQVIA, Healthcare Pharmaceuticals and Beximco were ahead of Square in sales during the pandemic.
With Tk1,809 crore sales, Healthcare registered the highest 30.37% sales growth as it succeeded in sales of hypertension and heartburn drugs alongside azithromycin.
With Tk2,467 crore sales, Beximco posted 28.06% growth to come out second.
Eskayef Pharmaceuticals, which came out fourth in the IQVIA ranking, logged Tk1,169 crore sales during the pandemic as its sales edged up by 22.02%.
Next on the list, Opsonin Pharma registered 18.64% sales growth as its pandemic sales stood at Tk1,454 crore.
Abdur Rouf Khan, managing director of Opsonin, said, "We tried our best to keep drug supply uninterrupted during the pandemic. The efforts turned into a sweet success as there were no drug crises in the local market though some medicines became scarce in foreign markets."