Covid: Indian device-makers’ response more potent than drug firms’

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on March 28, 2020

The former set has been at forefront of the fight unlike the latter lot, which has been subdued

It is not without reason that the Indian pharmaceutical industry was called “pharmacy to the world”.

The voice from India was often heard on the international stage campaigning for public health. Hark back to the World Trade Organization ministerial conference at Doha (2001), where India played a role in securing a landmark declaration on public health that allowed countries to act in the interest of citizens.

The same year, Indian drugmaker Cipla offered to supply HIV/AIDS drugs at a dollar a day in Africa, another game changer on access. In fact, many Indian drugmakers have been at the forefront of supplying less expensive medicines to several countries, touching patient lives across the world.

In comparison, the response to the pandemic novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has been rather mellow, to put it mildly. Industry watchers are struck by the relative silence from the Indian pharmaceutical industry, when they should have been out there, instilling confidence on supplying the required medicines, both locally and abroad, if need be. Only Serum Institute and Zydus Cadila (working on vaccines to tackle the virus) and less-known companies like Lasa Supergenerics (working on anti-viral Favipiravir) have shown the enterprise of yore.

Contrast this with the younger industry sibling, the medical devices industry, which seems to have stepped up to the plate, making its presence felt, and more. It has engaged with the Government and been vocal about red-flagging shortfalls, outlining policy requirements and applauding good initiatives.

For an industry that’s only now being fully brought under the regulatory framework, there is a buzz about making masks, sanitisers, PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, etc. In fact, the diagnostics segment is seeing vibrant participation from local entrepreneurs, a welcome sign for the future, say industry watchers.

Suspend patents & copyrights

“Think of Doha, think HIV/AIDS and how we changed the world,” says treatment access lawyer Leena Menghaney, recalling India’s role on the global public health stage.

This time, she sees such trends in diagnostics where the stranglehold of big companies in reagents (used in testing kits) is being shaken by a slew of kit-makers. “It’s a good step to start with, quality needs to be assured and they will bring in a revolution,” she says.

Uncomfortable with the nationalism displayed by countries trying to corner all vaccines and medicines for themselves, Leena calls for a global stockpiling mechanism that would give countries access to critical medicines, vaccines and technology being developed to treat the virus. Governments should suspend patents on new drugs or copyrights on medical technology in these pandemic times, she says, pointing to such moves by countries like Israel, Chile and Ecuador.

S Srinivasan of LOCOST (a producer of less expensive drugs) and representative of Aidan (All India Drug Action Network) agrees that the pharmaceutical industry should have shown a greater sense of assurance.

Drug companies are meeting the Government and keeping track of inventory, he says, but they also are dealing with dwindling supplies from China. And in the 21-day lockdown period, they are faced with getting clearances to operate factories and transport their products.

To prevent matters from getting worse, Srinivasan suggests that Government not push price control now, because companies are already constrained by short supplies in input materials. Supply of drugs critical to this period should be identified and if it included new medicines, they should be freed of patent protection and monopolies, he stresses.

Early warning system

Explaining the low profile being kept by drug-makers, an industry hand clarifies that companies were working with Government in sorting out supply-chain problems so access was not disrupted.

He agrees, however, that the industry should have acted like an early-warning system on supply shortfalls from China and the massive production challenge coming India’s way as more countries shut borders and kept stocks for themselves. “When your house is on fire, you don’t wait for someone to call the fire-engine, you jump right in and do everything to douse it, including screaming out for help,” he points out.

The medical device industry fared better here too.

Rajiv Nath with the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry (AiMED) points to early warnings on shortages of masks, non-contact thermometers, etc, that led to alerting the Government.

“A month ago, we were told of the ventilator shortage. No data was available, but now we know there are nine manufacturers. Shortages loom now in display monitors and oximeters, used with ventilators,” he cautions.

As the country braces for the projected peak of the coronavirus spread, there are two ways of looking at the healthcare industry experience — the cloud or low-key response from drugmakers and silver lining of entrepreneurship in medical devices. The country needs more silver lining from both.

Published on March 28, 2020

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