If there is one drug countries around the world need the most to cope with the coronavirus, it is paracetamol. A medicine used universally as the safest cure for fever and pain that is available over the counter. India makes this drug in both the tablet form and as active pharmaceutical ingredient (API in quickspeak), which is used to make the tablet. On Thursday night, the makers of this drug in India learnt that the government has lifted all restrictions on exports of the paracetamol APIs. As expected, the industry hailed the decision and expressed relief that Indian companies can still stake claim to being the pharmacy of the world that fulfills almost 40 per cent of the world's paracetamol requirement.
Half a dozen Indian companies make 6,000 metric tonnes of paracetamol every month. These firms include Granules India, Sri Krishna Pharma, Farmson, Meghmani and Bharat Chemicals. The requirement within India, both for domestic use and domestic sourcing for exports as tablets, is at best around 2,000 metric tonnes. This means around 4,000 metric tonnes can always be exported every month. These have traditionally been exported to counties across Europe, the United States, Latin America, Australia, Malaysia and parts of Africa. However, since March this year, the government restricted exports, arguably with good reasons. Indian makers have been dependent on China for the key starting material called para aminophenol, or PAP, used for making the API and there were fears of shipments being disrupted from China due to the coronavirus lockdowns. Had curbs not been imposed, India could have ended up with shortages, which would have proved disastrous.
The government, however, still allowed formulation or tablet exports. The lifting of curbs on APIs has however been done in stages. Some argue that the process of lifting the curbs on the API exports could have been faster as this way the importing countries would not have had to look to other sources for overcoming any shortages. Also, we could have looked at the Chinese example where despite the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, China was still able to keep up with its supplies to some key global markets. But then, it is easy to complain now because there were no shortages. As some experts point out, these are unprecedented times and an era of ultra-nationalism and most of the importing countries would hopefully be able to appreciate the compulsions of India.