India, the world’s drugstore during COVID-19 pandemic

By Alejandro R. Otero

New Delhi, Apr 22 (efe-epa).- The global coronavirus pandemic has exposed many countries’ dependence on foreign-made medicines, with India – the world’s largest exporter of generics – once again allowing the export of pharmaceutical drugs following requests from powerful nations.

The Indian government had banned the export of 14 substances and their derived formulations, including Acyclovir, an antiviral drug, and several antibiotics.

But on Apr. 7, it lifted the ban for all of them, while keeping some restrictions on paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine, which require express authorization.

One of the most sought-after medicines by countries affected by the pandemic has been hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that has been used in several clinical studies to combat the novel coronavirus.

“We have enough stock. There is no issue as our production is much more than our domestic requirement,” Indian Drug manufacturers head Ashok Kumar told EFE.

“Until now, our requirement has been only about 20 million tablets (of hydroxychloroquine) per month, whereas we have the capacity to produce 200 million tablets, So we have a great buffer between the two, to take care of our domestic increase demand in view of COVID-19 and also to cater for the exports,” Kumar said.

He added that they also have “the capacity to increase our production further by around 50 percent.”

Some companies manufacture the drug “without dependence” on external raw materials, although he explained that other companies do need to import them, especially from China, which involves several problems, such as an increase in prices.

India is supplying hydroxychloroquine, among other medicines, to Brazil, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the United States.

“The US has also been buying other drugs from us, more than 20 percent of our exports are to US,” said Kumar, welcoming the Indian government’s decision to resume exports of certain medicines.

The Indian government lifted some of the restrictions on medicines on Apr. 7 in “solidarity” with the rest of the world and not due to pressure from any country, a health ministry official told EFE on condition of anonymity.

Former Indian Medical Research Council director and infectious disease expert, Jacob John Tekkekara, said that the decision on permitting exports was the right one.

However, he also noted that it was taken immediately after US President Donald Trump threatened the Asian country with “retaliation” if it did not allow exports.

“I don’t know what to call Trump, he is temperamental so he makes a threat. If we don’t take it seriously he may actually do what he said he would do like you saw with the WHO (…) he is unpredictable, that is why I said temperamental, so what Modi did was absolutely the right thing,” stressed Tekkekara.

The expert was referring to Trump’s decision to freeze US funding to WHO last week over alleged mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.

As for hydrochloroquine, so far 13 countries have obtained government permission to purchase it in India and have already received some 14 million boxes, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) spokesperson in India, Leena Menghaney, told EFE.

Menghaney also urged the authorities to also allow NGOs to make purchases for use in poor countries.

She said that the countries that had received these permits included the US, Spain, Germany and Brazil, in the West; and Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Maldives, in South Asia.

“While MSF understands the need to ensure supplies of hydrochloroquine for its national COVID-19 response, and welcomes the Indian government’s decision to allow export on a case to case of the drug basis on humanitarian grounds,” said Menghaney.

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