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'Why the fuss over hydroxychloroquine?'

April 07, 2020 12:09 IST
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'India is a pharma dada. We can manufacture enough for our people and for the world.'

IMAGE: Doctors check patients at the Government Medical College hospital in Jammu. Photograph: PTI Photo

"This is an absolutely unnecessary controversy. The government should have right away allowed the export of hydroxychloroquine because it is a commodity drug and does not require high-end knowhow," says Dharmesh Shah, chairman and managing director, BDR Pharma, a Mumbai-headquartered pharmaceutical company.

"India is a pharma dada. We can manufacture enough for our people and for the world, so what's the fuss over it?" asks Shah.

The controversy over the export of hydroxychloroquine, a drug needed to fight coronavirus, turned into a big issue after United States President Donald J Trump 'warned India of retaliation if it did not allow the drug's export.

India had temporarily banned the export of hydroxychloroquine following the sudden rise of COVID-19 cases within the country.

But the Indian pharma industry is amazed that such a "commodity product" for which experienced companies can develop the capacity overnight can become an issue between any two countries.

On Tuesday, April 7, morning the ministry of external affairs issued a statement, 'In view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would license paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) in appropriate quantities to all our neighbouring countries who are dependent on our capabilities.'

'We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic,' the MEA added.

However, the drugs 'will be kept in a licensed category and their demand position would be continuously monitored,' the MEA added.

'After having confirmed the availability of medicines for all possible contingencies currently envisaged, the restrictions have been largely lifted,' the MEA stated.

The government has been flooded with demand for hydroxychloroquine from Nepal, Mauritius and SAARC countries, as well as from South Africa. So it was not just America's demand that was under consideration in New Delhi.

All the countries with COVID-19 patients need the drug. China, which is in a position to export the drug, has been approached by more than 60 countries.

IPCA Labs, Zydus Cadila and Wallace Pharma produce hydroxychloroquine tablets. Two pharma giants are currently working overtime to meet the order from the government.

India has a capacity to produce more than 200 million pills a month.

According to BDR Pharma's Shah, there are compelling reasons to lift the ban on the exports of hydroxychloroquine.

"This drug is not difficult to make, more than 20 companies are manufacturing it in the country," says Shah. "The government should just ensure that big export companies keep a sensible stock for domestic consumption and accept only a reasonable export order. It is not difficult to control the ratio."

"Second, this drug was never in short supply and is unlikely to be so in the future, so why such a scare?" asks Shah.

Shah fears that what should be to India's legitimate advantage will go to China because of the "unnecessary controversy" over the issue.

"The pharma industry is one of the biggest foreign exchange earners," Shah points out. "This is the time to build bilateral relations with more than 50 countries around the globe which need this drug."

"We should increase our capacity overnight and enter a win-win situation with lifting of the export ban."

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SHEELA BHATT / in New Delhi

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