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

India has lifted the ban on the export of 24 pharmaceutical ingredients, including anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.

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India has lifted the ban on the export of 24 pharmaceutical ingredients, including anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. The Narendra Modi government had banned the export on 25 March when it emerged that hydroxychloroquine, of which India is the largest producer, could be a viable solution for coronavirus. US President Donald Trump had urged Modi Saturday to allow export of the drug.

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

India is the ‘pharmacy to the world’. It can supply drugs to other countries and fulfil domestic needs

Dinesh Dua
Chairman, Pharmaceuticals Export Promotion Council of India (Pharmexcil)

India ranks third globally in terms of the volume of pharmaceutical production. Our pharma industry supplies drugs to over 200 countries and controls 50 per cent of the global vaccine demands. Perhaps this is why India is termed as the “pharmacy to the world”.

When it comes to treating Covid-19, however, there has been evidence of hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir, ritonavir and oseltamivir being used in advanced cases of coronavirus infection. India not only has the wherewithal for these kinds of treatment but it also has high-end antibiotics to act as adjunct treatment to a secondary bacterial infection. These antibiotics are also in large volumes, so much so that we can supply them to the rest of the world.

Therefore, our revolutionary and entrepreneurial pharma-biotech industry puts us in a comfortable position to cater to both domestic healthcare needs and pharmaceutical exports to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

However, with regards to domestic concerns, the government of India has to be careful and facilitate enough manpower when it lifts inter-state restrictions and aviation and sea transportation. It must also address inter-state police intervention in the movement of pharma supplies, given that the industry takes painstaking precautions to ensure sanitisation, social distancing and stringent monitoring of these products.

Coronavirus is a global challenge, world must fight it collectively

Kanwal Sibal
Executive council member, VIF, and former foreign secretary

The coronavirus, which originated in China’s Wuhan is a global challenge and must be fought collectively. A self-centred “me first” approach for any country is not right either pragmatically or morally. Countries are facing similar dilemma in case of other global challenges such as climate change. In India, we do not know as yet if the spread will be contained or if it will enter the third and fourth phases.

Our health sector is not equipped to cope with a health disaster. We have strength in the pharmaceutical sector but there is deficiency of testing kits and protective gear. We need to strike a balance. We must ramp up production of needed drugs at home, keep adequate stocks for our needs but also allow export, which US, Europe, Brazil and Europe are pressing us to do. Our problem is that we are heavily dependent on China for our requirement of active ingredients, though we have made arrangements for imports from China. We have to act both in national and international interest, with priority to our national needs.

India must produce its own key materials to cater to both our domestic and export needs

Ashok Kumar Madan
Executive Director, Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association and alumnus, IIFT

India can certainly balance the domestic pharmaceutical needs and its export during the Covid-19 crisis. In 2018-19, our pharmaceutical exports were around $19 billion dollars and our domestic market was approximately the same value, which means we have been performing the balancing act successfully. The quality, image and dependability of Indian pharmaceutical production is also at par with international standards, which is why the US, European Union, Australia and Japan are more than willing to buy from India.

However, we need to move from formulations to the production of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) as 70 per cent of our bulk drugs and key materials come from China. India needs to nurture its own key starting materials and API production so that we can cater to both our domestic and export needs without relying on one single nation.

The Narendra Modi government has been very cautious with regards to lifting curbs on certain pharmaceuticals like hydroxychloroquine. We first have an obligation to serve our own population and then, as the MEA clarified, we have to take care of our neighbouring countries. We’ve seen this with polio where certain nations that did not complete the vaccinations ended up spreading it to their neighbours.

Govt obligated to help global community, must maintain a steady hand to meet tricky demands

Malini Aisola
Healthcare expert and co-convenor of All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN)

The government had brought in export restrictions for select drugs due to the uncertainty in supply of raw materials from the epicenter of coronavirus outbreak — China. Another source of stress was the ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) on 25 March.

However, these restrictions were lifted on 6 April. Centre has also partially lifted ban on the export of HCQ.

This decision to rollback the complete export ban shouldn’t just be viewed as India buckling under US pressure. Government’s decision has come after assurances by the industry to produce reserve 10 crore tablets to meet domestic demand and export only surplus.

The Indian pharmaceutical industry is unnerved. Failing to honor commitments towards clients could damage India’s reputation as the ‘pharmacy to the world’. It could also lead to loss of business, particularly in lucrative markets like the US and UK.

The government also has an obligation to help the global community and facilitate exports in urgent times. The evolving epidemic at home and growing global need makes the decision tricky. Given competing demands, the government must steer with a steady hand.

When it comes to India’s turn to access new treatments and vaccines for Covid-19, one hopes that no external threats are exerted against any measures the country takes to secure access for her people.

Once this crisis is over, the world will remember who your friend was when you needed them the most

Nayanima Basu
Senior Associate Editor, ThePrint covering foreign policy and strategic issues

The move to export hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and paracetamol to the US, Brazil and a handful of European countries by India at a time like this when the world is facing coronavirus pandemic is a positive and unavoidable step. It is not for nothing that India is regarded as the ‘pharmacy to the world’ for decades now, for the role it plays in the supply of medicines and its key ingredients. It would have been a dent on that image had India refused to help today when it is most needed.

Historically, India has been supplying hydroxychloroquine to countries most impacted by malaria such as those in the African continent. According to Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association (IDMA), Indian pharmaceutical firms such as — IPCA Laboratories, Zydus Cadila, Mangalam Drugs and others — together produce around 40 metric tonnes of HCQ annually. According to IDMA, these firms can ramp up production to 60 MT, keeping in mind the pandemic. So, even if India exports these to other countries, the chances of shortage in the country will not arise.

Besides, the government has also made it clear that HCQ and paracetamol will continue to remain in the ‘restricted’ list for exports, unlike the remaining 24 APIs, which can now be exported freely. Additionally, the call to export HCQ and paracetamol, owing to its high demand in the domestic market, will only be on a case-to-case basis after proper assessment by the Ministry of External Affairs along with the department of health.

We need to understand that once this crisis is over, the world will remember who your friend was indeed when you needed them the most, and that will add to the strategic aspect of the geopolitical relationship.

Also read: Should India’s private healthcare join COVID-19 fight or risks becoming a profit venture?

By Pia Krishnankutty, journalist at ThePrint

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  1. now drug manufacturers may notices of iT ED and what not fro over invoicing /under invoices , claiming duties. any sector which shines gets the attention of Bhamasur

  2. If production of pharmaceuticals and other medical products can be dramatically stepped up and part of it can be exported, at normal prices, without gouging, at a time of crisis, that would win India abiding respect and gratitude. Also help in enlarging export markets for products in which we have long term competitive advantage, by no means an overwhelmingly long list. 2. Whoever may be US President or head of the WHO at the moment, India should remain rock steady in its commitment to multilateralism and the UN system.

  3. Normally this is a time when the countries of the world are expected to cooperate and feel a sense of shared purpose. While prioritising the needs of their own citizens, not to display selfishness. Of the sort that underlines America First. Snatching masks away from France or Germany after they had paid for them. Or now using the word “ retaliation “ and bullying India to allow exports of HCQ. One cannot judge how much thrust India will generate by relaxing curbs it had imposed after the deepest reflection. However, in this moment of unprecedented global peril, Trump is taking America away from the world’s esteem and regard. India’s Quad crowd should do their sums once again.

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