Small pharma firms shine during Covid

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on June 13, 2021

Drug makers need to keep pace with the government’s treatment advisories   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Companies barely known outside pharmaceutical circles have shouldered the responsibility of supplying drugs and vaccines

Over the last 15-odd months, the surge in demand for medicines to treat Covid-19 has been intense and with life-and-death consequences for patients.

But navigating this ebb and flow in demand are a bunch of rather low-profile companies that supply the medicines on their own or through alliances with larger drug- or vaccine-makers. And it’s not been an easy ride, as the fortunes of these medicines fluctuate with every advisory from the Government either recommending a drug for Covid-19 treatment or dropping it entirely from the list. That has been the case with antivirals like remdesivir and favipiravir or, more recently, ivermectin, an older anti-parasitic drug.

But these companies, barely known outside pharmaceutical circles, have shouldered the responsibility to make these medicines available as required. And, remarkably, they have not fought shy of investing and innovating.

Take Pune’s Brinton Pharmaceuticals, for instance. It makes favipiravir and ivermectin, among others, and had recently expanded production capacity to meet the increase in demand for these drugs. And then the Centre dropped it from the recommended list.

Rahul Darda, Brinton Chairman and Managing Director, explains that they tailor production in line with demand. The recently produced medicines have been supplied to states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal, he says.

Explaining how seven-year-old Brinton got into making Covid-19 products in the first place, he says that research last year showed positive results from studies on favipiravir in Japan, China and Russia. So the company started with making favipiravir 200 mg (where patients had to take 18 pills a day, in two doses), and went on to make a shortened 400 mg version as well. “In India there is now the scope for differentiated products,” he says, adding that their entry into making Covid-related products was in response to local needs.

Now that the demand could recede, he says, they are researching alternative indications or uses of this anti-viral drug. Darda is a second-generation entrepreneur with a family background in pharmaceutical distribution.

Interestingly, there is a web of subcontracting that reveals more companies that make these drugs. BDR Pharma and Optimus Pharma supply Brinton, says Darda, even as these companies explore their own markets locally and overseas. BDR also supplies favipiravir to Sun Pharma and remdesivir to Cipla. And the latter is further subcontracted to Sovereign Pharma. Besides Optimus, which supplies favipiravir to larger drugmakers, there is the 10-year-old Lasa Supergenerics, as well, in this segment.

Vaccine stars

VAV Life Sciences is a low-profile biopharmaceutical company that makes crucial lipid ingredients used in drug delivery and has been researching its use in cancer drugs. But its moment in the sun, so to speak, came from being one in four global companies that make phospholipids, for mRNA Covid-19 vaccines. It supplies a US-based contract development and manufacturing organisation that further supplies Pfizer and Moderna for their mRNA vaccines. The company was scaling up its facility in Ratnagiri (Maharashtra) when there was an increase in local requirement of similar lipid ingredients for amphotericin, the injectable used in treating mucormycosis or “black fungus” disease.

In an earlier interaction, Arun Kedia, VAV LS Managing Director, responds to the global demand to waive intellectual property (IP) protection on Covid-19 products, including vaccines. “IP is overrated,” he says, adding, “India can generate its own IP.”

The league of little-known companies entering the larger area includes Shilpa Medicare, which is in an alliance to make Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine at its Dharwad (Karnataka) facility. It has reportedly also become a company of interest to other vaccine-makers looking to ramp up production, as also private equity looking to invest. Clearly, the pandemic has helped lay the foundation for new beginnings for the smaller companies that are stepping up to the onerous task at hand.

Published on June 13, 2021

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