India Again Allows Export of Antimalarial Drug Touted for Coronavirus

India is ending a ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that may help treat victims of the new coronavirus. The South Asian nation’s decision comes just days after President Trump urged India to release supplies of the medicine as it is one of its biggest producers.
India is one of the world’s largest producers of all kinds of generic medicines and had restricted exports of several drugs last month to ensure it had enough on hand to fight coronavirus at home.
On Tuesday India announced it is now willing to start exporting hydroxychloroquine again but with some government restrictions. It will export to neighboring countries that have few alternatives to Indian supplies as well as to countries and regions where the coronavirus outbreaks are the worst, foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said in a statement.
“We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic,” he said.
Mr. Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke over the weekend to discuss how the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s biggest could help each other fight the pandemic.
Some people, including Mr. Trump, have been hopeful that a combination of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, an antibacterial drug, could lessen the worst effects of the virus. The U.S. president has been suggesting Americans, even those without symptoms, should consider taking the drugs despite debate about their effectiveness.
A small number of early studies using only a limited number of patients in France and China have suggested the drugs may help relieve symptoms. However some health officials and doctors warned the studies were too small to prove the drugs are safe and effective.
India’s foreign ministry Tuesday said drugmakers would now require special government permission to export hydroxychloroquine. Before the ban, no such permission was required.
“Like any responsible government, our first obligation is to ensure that there are adequate stocks of medicines for the requirement of our own people,” said Mr. Srivastava. “However, the stock position could allow our companies to meet the export commitments that they had contracted.”
India currently has an annual capacity to produce 40 metric tons of the active pharmaceutical ingredients of hydroxychloroquine, which could make about 200 million tablets, according to Ashok Madan, executive director at the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association. The production capacity could be further scaled-up by around 50% in about two-three months, he said.
The normal domestic consumption of the drug in India is pegged at around 24 million tablets a year. Until now India has been largely exporting the drug to African nations that struggle with malaria. Zydus Cadila, Wallace Pharmaceuticals, Ipca Laboratories and Cipla are among the top Indian producers of the medicine, which is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
In India, the authorities have approved the use of hydroxychloroquine only for health-care professionals treating the patients of coronavirus and to those who are the close contacts of such patients.
The drug needs to be prescribed by a qualified doctor, but several chemists across India ran out of the stocks as people bought them in advance before the rule could be implemented.
While it is still far from U.S. levels, India has been struggling with its own surge in people infected and killed by the virus. As of Tuesday, the number of active cases stood at around 3,981 while reported deaths were 114, according to data from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.