What’s HCQ and why is Trump threatening India?

First things first: HCQ is hydroxychloroquine, an off-patent anti-malarial drug that’s been pushed to the centre of a global frenzied hunt for a drug to treat Covid-19, largely because US President Donald Trump, whose slow response to the epidemic has drawn criticism at home, has been pushing it as something of a miracle cure.

Is it really?

Clinical trials have demonstrated that the drug has shown some limited success in Covid-19 treatment, but the medical case for its widespread use against the virus has not been established. Even as of March 28, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) noted that it was “not FDA-approved for treatment of Covid-19”.

But it nevertheless gave its emergency authorisation for use of chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine sulfate to treat Covid-19 patients on the ground that the “known and potential benefits” of the drug “outweigh the known and potential risks”. That was enough to get Trump all excited.

I heard he is invested in a company that makes the drug.

It’s true that Trump’s family trusts are invested in a mutual fund that has a 3.3 per cent per cent stake in French drug maker Sanofi, which manufactures the drug. But from financial disclosures, as cited by media reports, Trump’s investment in Sanofi could be minuscule, perhaps as little as $99. Whatever his motivation in pushing the drug, it isn’t his direct financial interest.

Okay, so where does India come into the picture?

India is the largest manufacturer of hydroxychloroquine, and as soon as the buzz around it picked up, companies — from the US, Brazil, South-East Asia and elsewhere — placed large orders with Indian drug manufacturers. The drug began to vanish from Indian drugstore shelves as well, probably owing to a hoarding instinct, and in order to protect domestic supplies, the Indian government responded in the only way it knows: it banned exports of the drug.

That probably incensed Trump.

We don’t know that one way or another. But at his April 6 press briefing in Washington D.C. (transcripts here: https://bit.ly/2wrteCg ), Trump, in response to a question on India’s decision to ban exports of the drug, said he had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and that he felt sure that the supply would come through. But his use of the word ‘retaliation’ has triggered a controversy.

That sounds like a threat, for sure!

That’s how most Indian media outlets and Opposition politicians read it. But if you go through the transcripts carefully, it isn’t so open-and-shut. The questioner asks Trump if he was worried that the US decision to ban export of medical goods would invite “retaliation” from others — and cites India’s decision to ban the export of hydroxychloroquine. From that, it is clear that the question related to “retaliation” by India.

It’s possible that Trump misinterpreted the question. And given his rambling speech delivery, it’s not clear that he did imply there would be “retaliation” if India did not deliver on the drug. India’s decision to lift the export ban was seen as the Modi government’s capitulation to a threat of “retaliation”. But as The Print Editor Shekhar Gupta points out, that reading is flawed.


India has not distinguished itself through its recent policy flip-flops on export of drugs. And, yes, it doesn’t always stand up to US diplomatic bullying. But in this particular case, the near-consensus view that India capitulated to US threats of ‘retaliation’ is probably erroneous.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions