Coronavirus lockdown | Pharma units still not able to operate freely

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MUMBAI A week after the Department of Pharmaceuticals warned of an impending shortage of drugs if pharmaceutical units are not able to operate freely during the lockdown, there has only been a marginal improvement in their functioning, with employee movement, transport and raw material supplies still hampered, and courier services remaining non-functional.

Most domestic pharmaceutical producers are operating at 30%-50% of capacity, while larger research-driven players say they have hit 40%-50%. 

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On April 11, the Department of Pharmaceuticals told the Home Ministry that the industry was operating at just 20%-30% of capacity and called for immediate measures to bring the output back to the pre-lockdown level.

The Department is co-ordinating with the Ministry of Civil Aviation to bring in raw materials, finished drugs and vaccines on special flights operated by Air India. The Department of Posts and the Railways have offered pharma producers their services to help reach products to the hinterland.

“Manpower availability has improved a little, but people who have left the cities and gone back are hard to replace. Materials movement hasn’t improved much and packaging also remains difficult to procure,” said Daara Patel, secretary-general of the Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association, which represents over 1,000 large, small and medium companies.

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The industry is hoping that things may start to improve from Monday, as parts of the country will relax the lockdown norms, and trucks carrying essential as well as non-essential goods have been allowed to move across State borders in the past week.

“There is a very slight improvement in the operating capacities among our big and small members — 30% to a maximum of 50%,” said Mr. Patel, adding that raw material consignments were stuck at ports and airports for clearance, especially at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port (JNPT), the Mumbai airport and the Chennai port. 

K.G. Ananthakrishnan, Director-General of the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI), which represents large research-focussed firms, said the congestion at the JNPT and the Mumbai airport should be eased to fast-track import as well as export orders. OPPI members are operating at 40%-50% of their installed capacities, an improvement from a week ago.

“Truck movement has improved, coming from a zero level (when the lockdown was initiated) to 40%-50%. Availability of cold chain services, critical for moving vaccines and insulin, are still at 30% of the pre-lockdown levels, and we have been alerting the government to this,” Mr. Ananthakrishnan said.

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The Department of Pharmaceuticals is monitoring the situation and has created chat groups for producers to flag concerns and liaise with other Ministries for possible solutions to these challenges on a real-time basis. “In the pharma industry, we have not used postal services earlier, but now many companies are exploring the option,” the OPPI secretary-general said, stressing that lack of courier services, especially to Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities from where drugs are despatched to remote areas, remained a problem. 

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