Life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) medication is in short supply in Zimbabwe and high prices have kept the scarce drugs out of reach for most HIV-positive Zimbabweans.

Varichem Pharmaceuticals, a local pharmaceutical company, manufactures ARVs but crippling foreign currency shortages have made it difficult to import the raw materials for the ARVs and the company was forced to stop production.

Raising inflation and fall in foreign currency have crippled the health sector. This has  created shortages of drugs, medical equipment, and personnel, who have migrated in search of better salaries and living conditions.

A one-month prescription of Stalenev 30, a common first-line ARV drug, now cost Z$85 million (about US$42.50 at the parallel exchange rate). Most Zimbabweans earn less than Z$3 million a month (US$1.5) or are unemployed. At private pharmacies the drugs can cost up to four times the price as at subsidised public dispensaries.

Varichem Pharmaceuticals has upgraded its drug-manufacturing factory to meet international standards can offer a solution to Zimbabwe's cash-strapped government.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided US$2.1 million for the upgrading process and trained Varichem staff to use the latest ARV manufacturing technology. Managing director Tobias Zangare said the ARV manufacturing plant now had to be tested and certified by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

But there was no consensus on whether manufacturing the drugs locally would make much difference. With construction of the ARV manufacturing plant complete and only awaiting WHO certification, the approval would allow them to apply for foreign funding to capitalise their operations.

In the absence of local regulatory authorities, WHO has stepped in to provide a stringent quality assessment of its own, and passing WHO's prequalification scheme is a requirement for countries seeking funding for local manufacturing from the Global Fund.

AIDS activists remain unconvinced. Reverend Maxwell Kapachawo, head of the Zimbabwe Network of Religious leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS (ZINERELA+), a rights group, are of the view that Varichem Pharmaceuticals might not necessarily make ARVs more affordable. According to government statistics, only 90,000 people are on ARV therapy, while close to 400,000 are in urgent need of ARV drugs.