Goodwill gesture: Anti-malarial drug export curbs eased to tackle Covid-19 pandemic

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Published: April 8, 2020 1:15:41 AM

India had in March imposed curbs on the exports of over 26 drugs.

India had banned the export of hydroxychloroquine on March 25 after some experts suggested that it could be used to treat Covid-19 patients. (Image: AP)

India has decided to partially ease the restriction on the export of paracetamol and anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine — called a “game changer” by US President Donald Trump in the fight against the Covid-19 outbreak — to honour its global commitment to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. New Delhi would allow hydroxychloroquine exports on a case-by-case basis after meeting domestic requirements, senior government officials said on Tuesday.

The move came after Trump requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday to urgently supply hydroxychloroquine. On Monday, Trump indicated the US might consider retaliation, if India’s export restriction persisted. New Delhi has also received requests from 20-odd countries, including neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka, to supply hydroxychloroquine, according to official sources.

Meanwhile, in a late-night notification on Monday, the government freed 24 of the 26 pharma products of export restrictions slapped recently. India had banned the export of hydroxychloroquine on March 25 after some experts suggested that it could be used to treat Covid-19 patients.

“In view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would licence paracetamol and HCQ (hydroxychloroquine) in appropriate quantities to all our neighbouring countries who are dependent on our capabilities,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.

“We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic,” said Srivastava. As for the lifting of restrictions on the 24 drugs, a senior government official said the decision was made after a comprehensive review of domestic supplies under various possible scenarios. The view was that the availability of these drugs was adequate and the country could meet export demand as well.

India is the world’s largest producer of hydroxychloroquine, an old and inexpensive drug used to treat malaria. “India has always maintained that the international community must display strong solidarity and cooperation. This approach also guided our evacuation of nationals of other countries,” Srivastava said. “With regard to paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine, they will be kept in a licensed category and their demand position would be continuously monitored,” he said.

India had in March imposed curbs on the exports of over 26 drugs. This is because while the Indian pharmaceutical industry is a key formulation drug (value-added products) exporter, it relies heavily on imports of bulk drugs (active pharmaceutical ingredients and intermediates that give medicines their therapeutic value). Since supplies from China were disrupted after the pandemic, India wanted to ensure its domestic supplies of essential medicines remained steady. As much as 68% of these raw materials were imported from China last fiscal.

According to a recent CII estimate, India imported bulk drugs worth around Rs 24,900 crore in FY19, up by 30% from a year before, accounting for roughly 40% of the domestic consumption. Imports of raw materials from China have been on a steady rise over the years (from 62% in FY12 to 68% in FY19) due to the low-cost advantage enjoyed by Chinese manufacturers. In FY19, India imported APIs worth Rs 17,400 crore from China while exporting these items worth merely Rs 1,600 crore. In certain critical antibiotics and antipyretics, dependence on imports from China is even close to 100%.

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