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[CAPE TOWN] African ministers, health researchers and pharmaceutical industry representatives began meeting today to discuss how to boost drug innovation and production on the continent.

The African Expert Meeting on Pharmaceutical Innovation in Africa — taking place in Pretoria, South Africa this week (18–20 February) — aims to encourage African policymakers to act to boost drug development and access to essential medicines.

It will submit recommendations, and a strategy for implementing them, to African health ministers for approval.

The political will to boost the African drug industry is cemented in two documents – the Global Strategy on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property signed by 192 countries in May 2008 and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa adopted by the African Union in 2007.

Meeting deliberations will be based on a report, published today (18 February), by the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) in collaboration with the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

The report presents the current state of drug research, development, marketing and access on the continent. It also proposes a 'grid' tool that governments can use to tailor policies to their own needs.

It says that although there are more than 120 initiatives engaged in researching and delivering medicines for diseases that affect Africa, there is little coordination between them, or long-term planning.

Individual nations, and the continent as a whole, must be guided on how to ensure that engagement with pharmaceutical innovation fits their needs, it says.

African governments must think hard about what they are trying to achieve, said Carel Ijsselmuiden, director of COHRED.

"Is your aim to provide maximum access of essential medicines to the population? Or create a pharmaceutical technology sector to drive economic development? Both paths can benefit the country but the skills and investment needed for each are quite different," he said.

The Pretoria meeting will address the gap between the continent's lofty intentions and the reality on the ground, said Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, chief executive of NEPAD. "Countries need to better understand their situations, and what it is possible to achieve."

Many African governments have unrealistic expectations of what their investments in drug development will achieve, Gary Maartens, head of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Cape Town, told SciDev.Net.

"People think there is a treasure trove of potential drugs," he said. But in reality, compounds rarely make it to market and the cost of taking those that do is so high that the financial return on investments will take a long time to materialise.

Big pharmaceutical companies will have a role to play on the continent for many years to come, in particular in taking promising African compounds to the market, said Maartens.