Stuck in a policy haze, government takes back export ban on COVID-19 related drug HCQ

07 April 2020
India is one of the biggest manufacturers of Hydroxychloroquine, or HCQ. While research is still divided on its efficacy against COVID-19, the Indian Council of Medical Research has recommended it’s use as a preventive measure for frontline health-workers and caregivers combating the pandemic.
John Locher / AP Photo
India is one of the biggest manufacturers of Hydroxychloroquine, or HCQ. While research is still divided on its efficacy against COVID-19, the Indian Council of Medical Research has recommended it’s use as a preventive measure for frontline health-workers and caregivers combating the pandemic.
John Locher / AP Photo

Early today morning, the Indian government rescinded a blanket ban imposed on the export of hydroxychloroquine, or HCQ, a 75-year-old drug used for the treatment of malaria and auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The decision to reverse the ban was taken barely 48 hours after it was put in place. On 4 April, the Director General of Foreign Trade, an office that comes under the ministry of commerce and deals with matters related to exports and imports, released a notification that stated, “The export of hydroxychloroquine and formulations made from hydroxychloroquine, therefore, shall remain prohibited, without any exception.”

Notably, the blanket ban was itself an amendment of another ban imposed on 25 March, when the government first banned HCQ exports, with certain exceptions. This was following a guideline released by the Indian Council of Medical Research on 22 March, which recommended the use of HCQ for treating healthcare workers handling suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases, as a prophylactic.

The impositions and recalls are in line with the knee-jerk decisions that have come to exemplify the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether considered individually or in entirety, each of these decisions suggests a lack of consultation with the industry and health experts. The government’s decision to revoke the ban also comes right after the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, called the prime minister Narendra Modi on Sunday  and followed the conversation up with threats of possible retaliation if India did not lift its ban.

The ministry of external affairs conveyed the latest decision, to rescind the ban, via a press statement, and a notification is to follow. In the press statement, the MEA’s official spokesperson, Anurag Srivastava, said: “Our first obligation is to ensure that there are adequate stocks of medicines for the requirement of our own people. In order to ensure this, some temporary steps were taken to restrict exports of a number of pharmaceutical products. In the meanwhile, a comprehensive assessment was made of possible requirements under different scenarios. After having confirmed the availability of medicines for all possible contingencies currently envisaged, these restrictions have been largely lifted. The DGFT has notified lifting restrictions on 14 drugs yesterday. With regard to paracetamol and Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), they will be kept in a licensed category and their demand position would be continuously monitored. However, the stock position could allow our companies to meet the export commitments that they had contracted.”

The final decision to revoke the blanket ban was taken after an inter-ministerial meeting between the cabinet secretary, the health secretary, and representatives from the department of pharmaceuticals, which comes under the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers. With the latest decision, export of HCQ will be allowed on a case-by-case basis, after the manufacturers obtain a no-objection certificate from the government.

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

Keywords: COVID-19 Hydroxychloroquine ministry of external affairs Donald Trump
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