Making medicines in times of Covid: ‘the 11th-hour back-up strategy’

Rutam Vora | Updated on July 17, 2020

A look at how the pharma stronghold in Gujarat keeps operations running

Gujarat’s southern region of Vadodara-Ankleshwar and Surat has traditionally been a stronghold for making medicines. But life has not been easy over the last three months for drug manufacturers here as they grapple with Covid-19 at their doorstep.

In May, Ahmedabad’s Cadila Pharmaceuticals, a maker of active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) and formulations, reported over 30 Covid-19 cases at its Dholka manufacturing facility, prompting a 15-day closure of the plant. The company also lost three employees to the infection.

Earlier this month, Sun Pharmaceutical temporarily closed its Dadra facility at the Union Territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli after 17 employees tested Covid-positive. And this week, Lupin suspended operations at one of its 11 plants at the Ankleshwar facility after at least 17 plant staff tested positive. At RPG Life Sciences too, at least 10 employees reportedly caught the infection at its Ankleshwar unit.

The spread of infection at drug-making facilities is worrying as medical supplies are essential products, and any production or supply disruption impacts the public healthcare system.

According to estimates, nearly 35 per cent of India’s pharmaceutical turnover and about 30 per cent of pharma exports happen from just one State, Gujarat. And a surge in Covid cases at industrial clusters in the State naturally has authorities and the industry worried. The industrial districts of Ahmedabad, Bharuch, Vadodara and Valsad are reporting more cases every day, fuelling fear of Covid-19 spreading into their premises. Bharuch is home to industrial towns Dahej and Ankleshwar. “The spread of the virus is such that we can’t predict where it will strike and when. Currently, of the overall drug making companies, a very small number of factories are affected with infection. So there is no panic as such. but yes, every company is implementing its own standard operating procedure (SOP) and protocols for employee and plant safety. Coronavirus doesn’t differentiate between employee and employers — it can hit anyone,” says Mahesh Doshi, National President, Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association (IDMA).

In Cadila’s case, the shutdown was for a fortnight — long enough to affect supply chains and cash flows. Authorities have since changed their protocol for plant shutdown and reduced it to 3-5 days depending on the spread. Sun Pharma’s plant operations resumed on the third day after shutdown. "The authorities conduct thorough sanitisation of plant premises. Also, companies insist on all employees getting tested after a case surfaces at the plant. This helps identify and isolate suspected cases. Therefore, other staff can return to work after plant sanitisation. This takes roughly three days,” discloses a health official at Ankleshwar.

For Arvind Jani, a new recruit at a pharma company in Ankleshwar, it is a tall task to deal with a worried family back home in Ahmedabad and explain the family’s concerns to his boss.

But companies are walking the extra mile on safety.

Cluster-based approach

Vadodara’s Alembic Pharmaceuticals has designed a cluster-based approach for its plant and R&D facilities to avoid cross-contact between different groups of employees.

“We identified groups of employees working in similar clusters at each unit. Members of each cluster are identified with specific-coloured strips. No cross-cluster engagement is allowed and we have put physical barriers so that even if there is an infection at the plant, it remains within a group and can be quickly contained without affecting plant operations. This ensures there is no spread of infection from one cluster to the other,” explains an Alembic representative. Others in Gujarat and Maharashtra are providing employees with vitamin supplements (Vitamin C, D, B complex and zinc tablets) besides other immunity boosters to stay fit.

IDMA’s Doshi explains that production takes a short-term impact when a Covid case surfaces at a plant. “Most large players have alternate facilities at other locations where they can switch their production temporarily till the plant resumes operations. Every company has its 11th-hour back-up strategy. And for supplies, there is normally 3-3.5 months of inventory in the pipeline from plant to retailer. So immediately there won’t be any crisis even if there is a further spread of the virus,” says Doshi, confident that drugmakers will surmount the Covid-19 crisis.

Published on July 17, 2020

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