India bans Remdesivir exports as coronavirus rages on; rallies continue
By Devjyot Ghoshal and Krishna N. Das
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India on Sunday banned exports of the antiviral drug remdesivir and its active pharmaceutical ingredients as demand skyrocketed amid a record surge in COVID-19 infections, leading to crippling shortages in many parts.
Authorities have largely attributed the gruesome resurgence of the virus to the crowd and reluctance to wear masks.
Even so, religious gatherings continued, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Interior Minister Amit Shah themselves engaged in election campaigns that attracted tens of thousands of people, many without a mask and barely social distancing.
As the number of new COVID-19 cases climbed to 152,879 on Sunday, the sixth record high in seven days, hunted relatives of patients lined up for miles to buy remdesivir outside a major hospital in western Gujarat state, witnesses said.
Known as the world's pharmacy, India has already halted large exports of coronavirus vaccines, although supplies have also become scarce in some states in the country.
In addition to banning remdesivir "until the situation improves," the health ministry said manufacturers had been asked to step up supplies.
Seven India-based companies have licensed the drug from Gilead Sciences for local use and export to more than 100 countries, with an installed capacity of approximately 3.9 million units per month.
The companies are: Cipla, Dr. Reddys Laboratories, Hetero Labs, Jubilant Life Sciences, Biocons Syngene, Zydus Cadila Healthcare and the Indian unit of Mylan.
The World Health Organization issued a conditional recommendation against the use of remdesivir in hospital patients in November. There is no evidence that the drug improves survival or other outcomes.
But many countries, including India, continued to use it.
India leads the world in the daily average number of new infections reported in more than two weeks and accounts for one in six infections reported worldwide on a daily basis.
The number of deaths has also increased. The Ministry of Health reported 839 deaths on Sunday - the highest in more than five months - and rose to 169,275.
India's number of more than 13.35 million cases is the third highest in the world after the US and Brazil. India's new infections have increased almost 18-fold since hitting a multi-month low in early February.
Some state governments have raised concerns in the past few days about the hoarding and black-marketing of remdesivir, which in some cases sells for 10 times the maximum retail price.
"Pharmacists and specialty retailers may be black marketers and that needs to be checked," Rajesh Tope, Minister of Health for India's hardest-hit Maharashtra state, told reporters this week.
Maharashtra and many other states have also called for more vaccine doses. India has administered more than 100 million doses since mid-January, most after the US and China, but much fewer per capita than many countries.
The Federal Ministry of Health has asked Maharashtra, home of India's financial capital Mumbai, to improve COVID-19 tests and deploy more workers.
"The hiring of health care workers and the hiring of contract health care workers must be accelerated," said the Indian health minister, pointing out an acute shortage of health care workers in seven districts of Maharashtra.
Thousands of people crowded the banks of the holy Ganges in Haridwar city on Sunday to pray during the Kumbh Mela - where up to five million are expected on certain days.
Authorities have mandated that all persons entering the area must conduct COVID-19 tests. But many supporters gathered on Sunday without a mask by the river, in tightly packed crowds.
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Krishna N. Das in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Sumit Khanna; Editing by William Maclean)
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