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India Is Easing Its Supply of the Controversial Anti-Malarial Drug To Other Countries During the Pandemic

Trump, who has been promoting hydroxychloroquine to fight coronavirus, had threatened India with “retaliation” if it continued the ban.
07 April 2020, 11:33am
India is easing ban on a controversial medicine that promises coronavirus treatment
A medical staff in Marseille, France, shows packets of Nivaquine tablets containing chloroquine, and Plaqueril tablet containing hydroxychloroquine. These drugs have come into the limelight for being theorretically promising for the treatment of coronavirus, although it still awaits approvals and mass-testing. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP

While the race to find a definitive cure for COVID-19 continues, there is one drug more than others that has found itself at the centre of the world’s interest, especially thanks to being propagated not by a doctor or a scientist but by a man named Donald Trump.

Over the last two months, a less toxic derivative of chloroquine (which cures malaria but has serious side-effects like diarrhoea and partial deafness and blindness) called hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) has shot into the limelight as the coronavirus pandemic spreads viciously across the world. It’s not been proven as the sure-shot cure for COVID-19, and some trials even point out it doesn’t work.

But none of that stopped US President Donald Trump from calling it a “game changer” on March 21. The result? The drug soon saw demand cross supply, leading to its hoarding and subsequent shortages. The result of that? India—the world’s largest producer of HCQ—imposed a ban on its export for domestic use. The result of that? Trump warned that the US would “retaliate” if India doesn’t release its stocks of the drug. And what happened next? India lifted some curbs on the drug the very next day.

So, what did Trump threaten India for?

According to recent data, 47 percent of the US supply of HCQ came from Indian makers last year. On Monday, the Indian supply ban led to Trump warning that the US would “retaliate” if India doesn’t release its stocks of the drug. “I spoke to him (Narendra Modi) Sunday morning, called him, and I said we'd appreciate your allowing our supply to come out. If he doesn't allow it to come out, that would be okay, but of course there may be retaliation. Why wouldn't there be?” Trump said during a White House press briefing

Obviously, Indians did not like this bullying tone.

What did India do next?

However, in response to perhaps both, the threat from the US and the growing global demand for HCQ, India has lifted some curbs, especially for neighbouring countries. "Like any responsible government, our first obligation is to ensure that there are adequate stocks of medicines for the requirement of our own people,” said Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, today. “In order to ensure this, some temporary steps were taken to restrict exports of a number of pharmaceutical products.”

At the moment, India has been facing some strains on the availability of HCQ, after which the Indian Council of Medical Research recommended that the drug only be reserved for healthcare workers and those caring for COVID-19 patients at home. For now, the Ministry of External Affairs has confirmed that the restrictions have been eased keeping in mind the availability of medicines for all possible scenarios in India. The supply of HCQ, hence, is being decided “in appropriate quantities” for neighbouring countries “who are dependent on [India’s] capabilities,” according to Srivastava. “We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic.”

But does the drug even work?

Apart from being controversy’s child, HCQ has been looked at as a potential antiviral agent for several decades. But in the face of no known treatment for the coronavirus, it’s being seen as theoretically promising, especially since it’s a significant treatment of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. However, there are still some dangers in slowing down the immune system, since susceptibility to coronavirus could just increase. At the same time, the misinformed hype is overshadowing HCQ’s side-effects, which includes psychiatric ones like paranoia and hallucinations, loss of vision and sudden cardiac deaths.

But medical misinformation—like the one that Trump helped disseminate—is dangerous, especially when there is no large-scale testing and the FDA itself authorising the drug only for “emergency use”, while also maintaining that “there are no currently approved treatments for COVID-19”. It leads to instances like a Guwahati doctor dying of a cardiac arrest after consuming HCQ as a “preventative measure” during the outbreak. In the US, some reported that people were getting their own prescriptions, or writing themselves large prescriptions of the drugs, and conducting independent tests on themselves and their families.

So here’s the simple answer: Nobody knows yet. But what we do know is that the hoarding of the drug is putting patients who already take it, at higher risk.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.