Coronavirus lockdown | Scarcity of drugs, devices imminent, government warned

Ensure resumption of units, urges Department of Pharmaceuticals.

April 11, 2020 12:59 am | Updated 11:12 am IST - Mumbai



A countrywide shortage of medicines and medical devices is likely in the coming weeks, the Department of Pharmaceuticals has warned the Home Ministry, urging it to take immediate steps to help drug makers resume production under the current lockdown .

Drug and medical device makers are functioning “…on an average, at only 20%-30% capacity during the lockdown,” as per feedback from various industry formations, Department of Pharmaceuticals Secretary P.D. Vaghela pointed out in an April 9 communique to Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, which has been reviewed by The Hindu.

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Export demand

“If the production does not reach the pre-lockdown level soon, it could lead to shortages of medicines and medical devices in the coming weeks,” the letter said.

Underlining that half of India’s output of pharmaceuticals is exported as global markets offer better prices, the Department of Pharmaceuticals stressed that this could lead to disproportionate shortages in the domestic market, calling for suitable measures to be taken “in the right earnest” to prevent this “avoidable” situation.

Production units engaged in making essential commodities, including medicines, vaccines, masks and their ancillaries had been exempted from the restrictions imposed as per the three-week national lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24.

Though several States had already imposed restrictions on mobility and production by then, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister had urged State governments to ensure such production work continues, at a review meeting on March 22.

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Since then, repeated missives from the Home Secretary to the State governments to ensure that the production and movement of essential goods is not hampered hasn’t changed things on the ground, prompting the Department of Pharmaceuticals to raise the issue afresh.

Citing multiple factors responsible for the impasse at several pharma units in the country, the letter has identified the unavailability of labour, transport and courier services as the biggest problems, along with the closure of ancillary industries that are not being considered essential by local administrations and the police despite the Home Ministry’s directions.

Reverse migration of labour and local workers not reporting to work due to lack of public transport options and the fear of police action, combined with family and local community pressure, has made it difficult to operate factories even at lower than normal capacity, the department says.


The letter urged the Home Ministry to allow the pharma industry to ‘ferry back their contractual workers from their native places’ and make courier services ‘fully functional’ in metro cities as well as Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. Courier services are ‘crucial in ensuring movement of medicines and medical devices… is not adversely affected during the lockdown,” Mr. Vaghela has noted.

State and district administrations need to be sensitised and nudged to be proactive to fulfil the need for pharma units to function fully, the Pharma Secretary said, mooting that drivers with commercial licences be allowed to move with or without a vehicle by treating it as a ‘pass’ during the lockdown.

“Many drivers… have left their vehicles on highways or dhabas and returned to their native places. Unless they are allowed to reach their vehicles, those vehicles will be left stranded and thus would be out of circulation,” the letter pointed out.

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Even drivers who are not stranded in between trips are unwilling to take up work due to the “fear of ill treatment by the police, stoppage of vehicles on State, district and city borders, and lack of food and diesel on the route” the letter noted and said, “There is a dire need to not only address the apprehensions of these drivers but also to motivate/incentivise them (with insurance, etc.).”

The Department of Pharmaceuticals, entrusted with ensuring the seamless production and distribution of critical life-saving medicines in the wake of the lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, also reiterated its concerns about ancillary industries that it had raised in an earlier April 3 letter to the Home Ministry.

“Ancillary suppliers of inputs, including packaging material, excipients (required for tablets and capsules manufacturing), utility consumables like briquettes/gases (required to run boilers) and spare parts are not able to operate/supply…” the letter had said.

Apart from directives from the Home Ministry and the Pharma Department to State governments on the issue, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) had also written to all State Chief Secretaries on March 26 after it learnt of the problems facing pharma firms.

“The seamless functioning of pharma manufacturing and distribution units, both in public and private sector, is essential in dealing with the emergent situation,” NPPA chairman Shubhra Singh noted, adding that a helpline has been created for pharma producers’ operational complaints, which are also being referred to State Drug Controllers for suitable intervention.

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