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Combating coronavirus: Hydroxychloroquine makers face supply chain hurdles

E Kumar Sharma     March 25, 2020

A global hunt is on to find the right medicine to cure COVID-19 or coronavirus. The research by the World Health Organisation (WHO), research institutions and global innovator companies is largely focussed on repurposing of anti-malaria, anti-rheumatoid arthritis and anti-HIV medicines.

Leading Indian companies such as IPCA, Zydus Cadila are manufacturing anti-rheumatoid arthritis drugs like hydroxychloroquine and anti-malaria medicine like chloroquine. Cipla and Aurobindo are making anti-HIV medicines.

However, recently, due to reports of sudden spurt in demand of these medicines, there has been a shortage even though these are not for prophylactic use (to prevent the ailment) and need to be strictly bought against a doctor's prescription. The manufacturers have, however, reassured that there is enough capacity to meet the demand.

Pointing to the ability of companies to augment supplies, IPCA's joint managing director AK Jain says, "Last month we supplied around 50 lakh blisters of chloroquine in the market against 4 to 5 lakh blisters we typically sell in a month as this not a malaria season."

Similarly, on hydroxychloroquine, he says, "Normally we supply around 8 to 10 lakh strips per month because it is used by rheumatoid arthritis patients. However, we must have sold more than double of it last month."  

Many state governments have also been procuring these medicines and given that the incidence of malaria is down, every state government has enough supplies of chloroquine.

Moreover, there are several companies with the required manufacturing capability. The only challenge at the moment, says Jain, is that of logistics because other than the formulations, finished dosages or the tablets that are consumed, IPCA also makes the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) that are  bought by other companies to make the final tablets. If the supply chain bottlenecks continue with poor transport and mobility, there could be challenges as many input providers to the API-makers are either shut or unable to open their godowns.

Consider this: How do companies get workers to come to work at manufacturing plants amid the lockdown and how to convince the police and other regulatory authorities that though medicine-making is in the list of essential services, an API manufacturer may need things such as coal for boilers and certain industrial chemicals and solvents. That said, the government must pay heed to allowing transportation linked to medicine-making.

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