A private security guard checks his mobile phone while resting in front of closed market during the nation wide 21 day lockdown amid concern over the spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India.(AP)
On Tuesday, India removed some restrictions on the export of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which some people, including US President Donald Trump, believe to be the miracle cure for Covid-19. There’s no scientific evidence of this yet, but that hasn’t stopped some countries from trying to source more of the drug.
India is the world’s largest manufacturer of hydroxychloroquine. It is also the world’s largest exporter of it. As interest around the miracle drug soared, India, on March 25, banned the exports of hydroxychloroquine and any formulation containing it — including exports from special economic zones. That blocked pending orders, including one from the US.
Over the weekend, Trump spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and asked for the ban to be removed for US orders. On Monday, in usual fashion, he threatened “retaliation” if India didn’t do this, and also threw in a bit about how India has had the better of the US on the trade front (by then, India had already removed some of the restrictions). Hindustan Times learns that India has received requests for hydroxychloroquine from 20 countries, an indication of just how desperate governments around the world are to explore any possible cure for the pandemic that has infected 1.39 million people and killed over 79,000 around the world.
On Tuesday, India said it would stockpile enough of the drug for domestic use, and then, depending on availability, allow exporters to start servicing open orders. The decision on who to export to (and how much) will be taken by the department of pharmaceuticals.
India is the world’s generics factory — and it doesn’t get enough credit for this, something not entirely explained by the fact that some Indian pharma companies have had regulatory and quality issues. Cipla’s Yusuf Hamied made AIDS drugs affordable, helping, among other countries, South Africa, but he did so after a bruising fight with Big Pharma.
Even as it does its duty as a responsible power by helping other countries, India should use this opportunity to drive a hard bargain (or two) — for instance, there are key drugs, including those for cancer, that it should see to bring under the purview of either compulsory licensing or voluntary licensing, something that would make them accessible to millions of Indians. Indeed, India’s strong research and manufacturing base for generics, healthy vaccine development and manufacturing ecosystem, and natural advantages when it comes to clinical testing stand to give it an advantage (and a bargaining chip) in the post-Covid world.
Speaking of demand for hydroxychloroquine, India’s health ministry itself wants to build a stockpile of 100 million tablets. This is part of its planning for a worst-case scenario.
Our growing understanding (it’s still limited) of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, suggests that it makes sense to prepare for the worst. New research at the University of Texas at Austin seems to suggest that, in the US, even one case in a county could mean a 51% chance of an outbreak in that area. The researchers assumed that only a tenth of the cases are tested and reported — because many infections are mild, and many of the infected, asymptomatic (today’s opportune moment to remind everyone why masks are a must).
Our growing understanding of Sars-CoV-2 is also beginning to help us understand that this virus is more virulent, more dangerous, and, worryingly, much more evasive than its predecessor (in terms of vintage as well as terminology), Sars-CoV-1, the virus which caused a Sars outbreak in 2002-04. Like Sars-CoV-2, that virus too originated in China, and infected over 8,000 people in around 30 countries, killing 774.
Sun Tzu said it. As did Green Day. Know Your Enemy.