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Essential medicines export ban on the cards?

Essential medicines concept.The Government of India is contemplating imposing a ban on the exports of twelve essential medicines amidst the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) which has infected tens of thousands of people worldwide. 

The twelve essential medicines that could be affected include antibiotics, hormone drugs, and vitamins. A report is planned to be submitted to the Centre today according to a report filed Monday in The Times of India (ToI), citing an official belonging to an eight-member expert committee which has been assessing the availability of essential medicines in the country against the backdrop of the virus outbreak. 

India is largely reliant on China for its stock of active pharmaceutical ingredients. In fact, India’s dependence on China in this regard is higher than any other nation. As such, the government has pondered the ban on exports to ensure that if supplies from China dwindle, India will maintain a stockpile of these medications to prevent any domestic shortages.

As reported last year in The Hindu Business Line, China accounted for 66.69 percent of India’s Rs 19,653.25 crore of India’s imports of “all bulk drugs and drug intermediates” in the 2016-17 period. In 2017-18, China accounted for 68.36 percent of India’s Rs 21,481 crore worth of such imports. The following fiscal period, China accounted for 67.56 percent of India’s Rs 25,552 crore worth of imports. Of active pharmaceutical ingredients alone, between eighty and 85 percent of India’s stock is accounted for by Chinese imports. The expert committee identified China’s Hubei province – whose capital city Wuhan was the epicentre of the global COVID-19 outbreak – was identified by the expert committee as a major contributor to India’s stock of active pharmaceutical ingredients. 

With this in mind, antibiotics including azithromycin, chloramphenicol, clindamycin, metronidazole, and neomycin; vitamins B1, B2, and B6; and hormones used during pregnancy and menstrual cycles such as progesterone are among the essential medicines the Government could choose to temporarily prohibit exports of. “We have gathered that there is enough inventory to continue for at least the next two months,” the official quoted by the ToI said. “However, since Hubei and Shandong are the two provinces that [supply] twenty to 25 percent of the raw material, if the lockdown continues for another fifteen days, there may be a cascading effect. We have recommended a temporary export restriction on twelve drugs which are completely dependent on supplies from these two provinces.”

However, production is reported to have restarted in other Chinese provinces. As such, between 45 and fifty percent of Chinese imports to India are thought to be solid. 

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has also warned of potential drug shortages owing to the COVID-19 outbreak. The industry group warned that production of commonly-used drugs including ibuprofen and paracetamol could take a hit should the COVID-19 outbreak be prolonged and the lockdown encompassing swathes of China continue. FICCI also cautioned that “if the shutdown extends beyond February, then there may be some rise in prices of pharmaceutical products made in India.” 

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