Last week, the government restricted the exports of 26 essential drugs. These include paracetamol, antibiotics such as erythromycin and tinidazole, vitamins B1, B6 and B12, and progesterone — the hormonal drug used as a contraceptive.
Analysts say these drugs account for one-tenth of India’s pharmaceutical exports.
The ban was imposed fearing shortages due to disruption of Chinese raw material supplies. India heavily relies on Chinese raw materials like key starting materials, intermediates and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for drug manufacturing.
The decision sent shivers down the world, especially Africa, Asia and Latin America, where Indian drugs are lifeline for millions of people and healthcare systems. Even Europe and the US have expressed concerns. To be sure, there is no shortage of any medicines, including paracetamol, in the India market.
India pharma companies told the government they have inventories till the end of April and argued against the ban.
The government could have possibly based its decision on export-import data and traders. The export-import data does not give a full picture of inventory levels. There are allegations of traders taking advantage of the situation and hiking prices of raw materials.
The good news is, China which constituted over 80 percent of the cases, is able to significantly slowdown the spread of COVID-19. As on March 7, only 45 new cases were reported which is 98 less than the previous day. South Korea reported 93 cases at the same time.
With the exception of Hubei province, where the epicentre Wuhan city is located, other areas of China have reduced their emergency response levels. It is also imperative for China to resume production at its factories given the damage COVID-19 has caused to their economy.
Industry sources say that Chinese factories have started production at a limited scale, and most of the vendors are honouring supply contracts. Typically, Indian companies enter into three-six month supply contracts.
The decision to impose export restrictions, if not reviewed, may lead to serious damage to India’s reputation as a reliable supplier. We cannot claim to be the pharmacy of the world, if we pull down our shutters at the hour of medical emergency.
Last week, when this reporter went to a medical trade fair in Mumbai and enquired with several traders and manufacturers about face masks, sanitizers and disinfectants, everyone said there is a huge shortage in the market and they have run out of supplies.
There is also a shortage of contact-less infrared thermometers, pulse oximeters and other basic medical devices critical to dealing with an infectious outbreak like COVID-19.
A surgical face mask, which was selling at 50 paise, has now shot-up to Rs 25-30.
The shortages could be due to capacity constraints, panic buying and hoarding.
A huge quantity of face masks, sanitizers and disinfectants were also exported to China and other countries. The government’s flip-flops on imposing the ban on face masks and then revoking it, did not help matters.
Sanitizers and disinfectants should not be a problem, as it is just the case of alcohol availability.
The government should act swiftly. It should ration the supply of these essential things and punish hoarders who are taking advantage of the shortages. People should refrain from panic buying. Let us hope COVID-19 slows down with the onset of summer. That is the best possible chance now to deal with the outbreak.-Money Control