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Faced with drugs shortage, Indian pharma asks envoy to stop Chinese cargo suspension

On 26 April, China suspended for 15 days cargo flights by Sichuan Airlines that transports medical supplies to India. India imports 70% of its pharmaceutical raw materials from China.

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New Delhi: India is staring at a possible shortage of critical and life-saving medicines, with China deciding to suspend its cargo services to the country for 15 days.

This was at the heart of a letter written by The Pharmaceuticals Export Promotion Council of India (Pharmexcil) — India’s apex pharma export body and an arm of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry — to India’s Ambassador in China, Vikram Misri, on 29 April.

On 26 April, China suspended cargo flights by Sichuan Airlines, which had been transporting medical supplies to India. The suspension, valid for 15 days, was reportedly put in place to “reduce the number of imported virus cases”. Though a later news report suggested the decision had been revoked, sources in Pharmexil said there was no clarity on the situation.

Pharmaexil, in its letter to Misri, termed China’s suspension of cargo flights as “worrisome” and stated that the pharmaceutical industry in India is fearing “cascading effects”.

“While the Pharma industry is struggling hard to meet global commitments even during this hard phase of Covid second wave, the decision of Chinese state-owned Sichuan Airlines suspending its cargo services to India for 15 days is worrisome, in addition in addition to increased freight cost and shortage of containers,” Ravi Udaya Bhaskar, director general, Pharmexcil, wrote in the letter. ThePrint has accessed a copy of the document.

Bhaskar has also requested the ambassador to either stop the suspension or arrange for alternate cargo flights to pick up supplies from the country.

This is not the first time that India has been put in a crisis situation owing to its dependency on China for key medical imports. Last year, too, the Covid shutdown in China, had resulted in the near-shortage of critical and life-saving drugs in the country.

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‘Cascading effects on supply chain’

The suspension of Chinese cargo flights “is likely to disrupt frantic efforts by Indian pharma industry to import medical supplies, including oxygen concentrators, as well as key starting materials (KSMs) and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), required to manufacture finished formulations”, wrote Bhaskar.

KSMs and APIs are raw materials required for manufacturing of medicines and India is dependent on China for them.

“His excellency [Misri] is kindly aware that our country is sourcing almost 60-70 per cent of our requirement of drug intermediates, or KSMs and APIs, from China, and most importantly 45-50 per cent of all APIs imported feature in the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM),” the letter stated, while adding that “though the Product Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme for API manufacturing is being rolled out by the Government of India, it is going to take some time to reduce our dependence on imports.”

With the suspension of cargo services, “the industry is fearing cascading effects on its entire supply chain, leading to shortage of essential medicines for the nation’s population, as well as severe impact on exports,” concluded the letter.

The Indian pharma industry, stated the letter, is working hard to continue their research and manufacturing operations for the availability of essential medicines for the nation’s as well as global population during “tough” times.

“I am glad to share that Indian pharma exports have recorded outbound growth of 18 per cent in the current financial year, despite all odds and reached the $24.4 billion mark,” Bhaskar wrote in the letter.

The Pharmaexil director general has requested the Indian Ambassador to intervene in the situation to help restore the supply chain, by either preventing the suspension of Chinese cargo or by arranging other cargo services to pick up supplies from the country.

“We would like to request His Excellency to intervene and to take necessary measures to restore the supply chain of medical needs of our country, including KSMs/APIs, either by restoring the cargo services of Sichuan Airlines, or by arranging Indian air cargo to lift the medical supplies” he wrote.

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Not the first time 

It is not the first time when India’s dependency on China for medical exports has brought trouble for the country. Last year too, when China witnessed the first Covid outbreak, India was on the brink of facing acute shortage of critical and life-saving medicines. The problem was averted because of availability of extra stocks.

Pharma companies had then handed over a list to the government to tackle “drug security concerns”, highlighting that India may face shortage of antibiotics such as Azithromycin, Amoxicillin, Ofloxacin, Gentamicin and Metronidazole, Gabapentin (a neuropathic drug), vitamin tablets and capsules such as B12, B1, B6, and E, progesterone hormone medicines and the anti-cardiac arrest drug, Atorvastatin, among others.

Indian drug-makers import around 70 per cent of their total bulk drugs (or raw materials used for manufacturing medicines) from China. In 2018-19, the government had informed the Lok Sabha that the country’s drug-makers imported bulk drugs and intermediates worth $2.4 billion from China.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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