India has banned the export of antiviral drug remdesivir and its active pharmaceutical ingredients as demand rocketed amid a record surge in COVID-19 infections and led to shortages in many parts of the country.
New daily infections surged to 152,879 on Sunday, the sixth record rise in seven days, overwhelming hospitals in some regions. India, known as the pharmacy of the world, has already stalled major exports of coronavirus vaccines.
In addition to the remdesivir ban “till the situation improves”, the health ministry said in a statement that manufacturers had been asked to step up supplies.
Seven Indian companies have licensed the drug from Gilead Sciences, with an installed capacity of about 3.9 million units per month, for local use and exports to more than 100 countries.
The World Health Organization in November issued a conditional recommendation against the use of remdesivir on hospitalised patients, regardless of disease severity, saying there was no evidence that the drug improved survival and other outcomes in these patients.
Many countries, including India, however, have continued to use it.
Amid soaring infections, deaths have also surged, with the health ministry reporting 839 fatalities on Sunday – the highest in more than five months – taking the total to 169,275.
India’s tally of more than 13.35 million cases is the third-highest globally, behind only the United States and Brazil.
A so-called “Tika Utsav”, or vaccine festival, is being organised in the country to inoculate the maximum number of eligible people against the virus.
The mass vaccination programme is to be conducted until April 14, following an appeal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to chief ministers of states at a meeting on the medical crisis.
More than 100 million doses have already been administered to front-line workers and people above 45 in India’s vaccination drive, which began early this year.
However, several states have claimed they are facing vaccine shortages despite assurances from the government.
The federal health ministry wrote to the government of Maharashtra state, which is home to the financial capital Mumbai, asking local authorities to improve COVID-19 testing and deploy more manpower.
“Rostering of health care workers, hiring of contractual health workers need to be expedited,” the letter from India’s top health bureaucrat said, flagging an acute shortage of healthcare workers in seven districts of Maharashtra.
Authorities have blamed the resurgence of the virus mainly on crowding and a reluctance to wear masks, even as election rallies and religious gatherings have continued in recent weeks.
Thousands of people thronged the banks of the holy Ganges River in Haridwar city on Sunday for prayers during the Kumbh Mela – in which up to five million devotees are expected on certain days.
Authorities have made it mandatory for all people entering the area to take COVID-19 tests. But many devotees on Sunday gathered by the river without masks, in densely packed crowds.