US president Donald Trump called on India to release orders of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that has been identified as a potential treatment for coronavirus, as New Delhi tightened export restrictions to combat rising infections.
Mr Trump said that during a phone call with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi on Saturday he requested more of the drug because the country made it in “large amounts”. “I said I’d appreciate it if they would release the amounts that we ordered and they are giving it serious consideration,” said Mr Trump during a White House briefing over the weekend.
He repeated his claim that hydroxychloroquine was a “game-changer” despite a lack of concrete evidence about its effectiveness. Mr Trump said the US government was working to make the drug available for coronavirus patients, even though it had yet to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
“We’re going to be distributing it through the strategic national stockpile,” said Mr Trump. “We’re also getting it from various locations and other countries.” While there is no proof that it works against coronavirus, India has prioritised the supply of the drug for its own use as it counts a growing number of cases that threatens to overwhelm its underfunded healthcare system.
The world’s second most populous country of 1.37bn people has reported almost 3,600 coronavirus infections with 99 deaths as of Sunday — triple its caseload from last week, according to Johns Hopkins University. The discovery of superspreader events — including at the headquarters of Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi — has raised fears that its swift action to put the country under lockdown may not be enough to flatten the curve.
The Indian Council of Medical Research has recommended the antimalarial, which is also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can be used as a preventive medication for Covid-19 high-risk individuals such as healthcare workers.
On March 25, India limited exports with some exceptions, including for orders with full advance payment and on humanitarian grounds. But on Saturday the commerce and industry ministry issued a circular prohibiting all exports of “hydroxychloroquine and formulations made from hydroxychloroquine . . . without any exception”.
In a separate notice on the same day, it also put restrictions on the export of diagnostic kits. The ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Sudarshan Jain, of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance in Mumbai, said the full ban was put in place to stop speculative buying as companies rushed to place orders.
“There was a new demand as a Covid-19 product and all of a sudden there was speculative demand from all over the world,” said Mr Jain. “The government is trying to take stock of the situation and come up with a policy.” Pharma companies are in a “dialogue” with the government over the next steps, added Mr Jain.