File photo of pills moving through a sorting machine at a pharmaceutical plant in Andhra Pradesh | Sara Hylton | Bloomberg
File photo of pills moving through a sorting machine at a pharmaceutical plant in Andhra Pradesh | Sara Hylton | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: The coronavirus crisis and subsequent lockdown has impacted every industry in India, including the one industry needed to fight the pandemic — pharmaceuticals.

According to data by IQVIA, an advanced analytics and health research company, only four new products were launched in April by pharmaceutical companies in India — the lowest ever.

The four products launched include two in dermatology, one immunomodulator and one in the respiratory category.

In comparison, the pharma industry launched 349 brands last April, posting a fall of about 99 per cent to this year, according to data accessed by ThePrint. In March this year, 26 brands were launched as opposed to the 280 that were launched in the same month last year.

On average, about 150 new products are launched per month while last year’s lowest month was in November, when 195 products were launched.

The current low production is due to a host of factors brought on by the pandemic — lockdown restrictions causing shortage of labour, delay in transporting raw material and finished goods, social distancing measures complicating processes, and significantly, a dip in sales.


Also read: How India can be a world leader in making Covid vaccine and keeping it cheap too


Drop in sales and production

Chemists across the country have started feeling the pinch from the dropping sales of medicines across categories.

“Sales have dropped to half. At present, we have reached just 60 per cent of the routine sales for May target,” said Rajiv Singhal, secretary general, All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD) — a body representing 8.5 lakh chemists across India.

But it isn’t just sales that have dipped; domestic pharmaceutical companies are struggling to maintain the flow of their regular products by operating at just 40 to 50 per cent of their total capacity. Larger research-driven drug makers, both Indian and foreign companies, are operating at between 50 to 70 per cent.

What is impeding them is a shortage of labour at manufacturing sites and ancillary units, key raw materials being stuck at ports, and a delay in transportation of raw materials and finished products to and from the market.

“From unloading the raw material from trucks to filling the production lines, packaging the products and again loading on to trucks, a manufacturing site requires hundreds of labourers. They are unavailable due to a variety of reasons,” Dara Patel, secretary general, Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA) told ThePrint.

IDMA is the country’s largest pharma lobby with over 1,000 pharma companies as its members, including Torrent Pharmaceuticals, Lupin, Cipla, Sun Pharma and Jubilant Life Sciences.

Half-a-dozen pharma companies — three large and three medium sized — ThePrint reached, cited similar reasons for manpower shortage. However, they didn’t wish to be quoted considering they are working with the government to solve the issue.

Among the issues being faced with labour, apart from them going back to their native hometowns, are movement restrictions while traveling to work or not allowed to leave by their village or community heads while some labourers are worried about contracting Covid-19 at factories, according to all the six drugmakers.

However, the restricted production may not lead to shortage of drugs at a retail level for at least next one month. “There may be a very short duration of anxiety at chemist outlets (due to a delay in delivery to stock of medicines) … but, by and large, as of now, we don’t see shortages of medicines for the next 45 days,” Patel said.

Some pharmaceutical companies are, in fact, thankful for the dip in sales.

“Our production capacity is just half of the usual. Thankfully, sales have dipped across the market. Very few prescriptions are being handed over and hospital OPDs (outpatient departments) have just resumed. If demand from the market remained normal, we could have feared the shortage of drugs,” said an industry official running a medium scale Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company.


Also read: Govt gives Rs 15,000-cr boost to API and devices industry to check shortage amid COVID-19


Foreign drug makers face similar issues

Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI), a lobby of foreign-based drug makers which represents pharma giants such as Novartis, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Abbott, said their “members are operating at 50 to 60 per cent of their installed capacities, an improvement from the last few weeks”.

However, they have also reached out to the government to avoid any product shortages. The challenges remain the same as those faced by domestic drug makers.

“We have requested support from the government to address the challenges of low attendance of workmen in manufacturing facilities due to fear and logistical issues faced by them and poor supplies from ancillary units to pharma manufacturing facilities which hovers around 40 per cent currently,” said K.G. Ananthakrishnan, director general, OPPI.

They have also asked for priority clearance of imported raw material (active pharmaceutical ingredients or APIs) and improved operations of courier services within the country while finished formulation stuck at ports or airports also remain areas of concern.

“Printing and labelling on finished products also remains an issue as it mostly depends on ancillary units which are facing shortage of workers along with shortage of papers, ink and other products. Proper labelling is a legal requirement. No good can be dispatched without proper packaging,” said an official from a listed pharmaceutical company.

Another drugmaker who has a plant in Palghar, Maharashtra, said, “Only one driver and one loader are allowed to travel in trucks bringing raw material or taking finished products to market.

“It becomes difficult for one person to load (or unload) the entire truck and for other to drive day and night alone for thousands of kilometres. No food outlets are opened on highways. Also, with shortage of staff on manufacturing sites, labour who unload (or load) the truck is missing. It took days at our unit waiting for people to come and take products inside the unit. Everything is being delayed.”

However, the overall situation is relatively better than last month when on 11 April, the Department of Pharmaceuticals, an apex authority under the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, intervened.

“Our department told the Home Ministry that the industry was operating at just 20-30 per cent of capacity and requested for immediate measures such as acknowledgment among essential services and relaxation in movement of staff and goods,” said a senior official from DoP.

“We are working with the industry closely and trying to resolve the present situation.”


Also read: Can India balance its domestic pharma needs and also be a global player in Covid-19 fight?


 

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