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Govt to fly raw material from coronavirus-hit China for Cipla as shortage fears continue

There are fears that supply of essential medicines — including for HIV & cancer — may dwindle if supply chains in coronavirus-hit China don’t normalise soon. 

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New Delhi: The central government will help Cipla, India’s fourth-largest drugmaker, airlift 6 tonnes of raw material from coronavirus-hit China in the coming days, ThePrint has learnt. The raw material primarily comprises active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and key starting materials.

“Cipla has requested that its cargo weighing 6 tonnes be picked up from China,” a government official said. “Most likely, it will be picked up by a flight run by Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong at the earliest.” 

According to the official, the airline has “agreed to deliver the cargo at Mumbai”, where Cipla is headquartered.

An outbreak of the novel coronavirus — officially, COVID-19 — that began in December has killed over 2,700 people in China so far. With the Chinese government implementing strict measures to contain the spread of infection, including putting millions under a lockdown of varying degrees, many businesses have been heavily hit and crucial supply chains disrupted.

Among those affected are several manufacturers of raw materials for drugs, which has stoked fears of shortage in India, where drug-makers rely on China for as much as 70 per of their total API requirements.

Given these fears, the central government formed a committee last month to monitor the availability of drugs in India. 

The committee — led by joint drugs controller Eswara Reddy, one of India’s top regulators in the sector — subsequently asked drug-makers across India to inform the government if they required urgent “pick-ups” from China.

“Only Cipla wrote back (last week) with a nominal requirement of 6 tonnes,” the government official said, adding that the committee then requested the Ministry of Civil Aviation to airlift the cargo. ThePrint has accessed the communication between Cipla and the committee. 

Also Read: India could face drug shortage by mid-March if coronavirus-hit China can’t resume production

The raw materials required

When drug-makers were first approached with the offer, the government was planning to hire a charter flight to airlift raw materials. But the minimum load requirement for this was 30 tonnes. Since only Cipla responded, the official said, the Ministry of Civil Aviation opted for an alternative. 

“The ministry is awaiting a ‘no-objection certificate’ from the Chinese government for exports to the drug-maker before zeroing on a final pick-up date,” the official said.

According to sources, Cipla has listed six items it wants airlifted — fluticasone, adenine, artemisinin, triacetyl ganciclovir, dibenzyloxy guanine intermediate, and cyclohexane carboxaldehyde. These are used for a variety of purposes, including the manufacture of anti-inflammation drugs, synthesis of proteins during the making of drugs, production of anti-malarial drugs and to carry out toxicity and other chemical studies.

ThePrint reached Cipla through email for a comment but there was no response until the time of publishing this report. 

Shortage of drugs feared

There are fears in India that a shortage of essential medicines — including those for HIV, cancer, epilepsy and malaria — might kick in if affected supply chains in coronavirus-struck China don’t normalise soon. 

The Indian pharmaceutical industry is highly dependent on China for raw materials, even for medicine as basic as the over-the-counter painkiller Crocin. 

In 2018-19, according to government figures, Indian drug-makers imported bulk drugs and intermediates worth $2.4 billion from China. Given that India is a leading supplier of high-quality medicines across the globe, the repercussions of any shortage will be felt around the world.

Also Read: When WHO understates coronavirus risk, you know China’s geopolitics is at play


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