NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India on Sunday (April 11) banned the export of anti-viral drug Remdesivir and its active pharmaceutical ingredients as demand rocketed due to a record surge in Covid-19 infections and led to crippling shortages in many parts.
New Covid-19 cases 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 companies are: Cipla Ltd, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories Ltd, Hetero Labs Ltd, Jubilant Life Sciences Ltd, Biocon Ltd's Syngene, Zydus Cadila Healthcare Ltd and the Indian unit of Mylan .
The World Health Organisation in November issued a conditional recommendation against the use of Remdesivir in 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.
India leads the world in the daily average number of new infections reported in more than two weeks, accounting for one in every six infections reported globally each day, according to a Reuters tally.
Deaths have also surged, with the health ministry reporting 839 fatalities on Sunday - the highest in over 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.
India's drug regulator and some state governments have in recent days raised concerns over hoarding and black marketing of Remdesivir, which in some instances is being sold at over 10 times the maximum retail price.
Social media posts on Sunday showed large queues of people in the western state of Gujarat waiting to buy Remdesivir injections for Covid-19 patients.
"Every day the central government is providing 50,000 Remdesivir injections but all of them are getting consumed,"Mr Rajesh Tope, health minister of India's hardest-hit Maharashtra state, told reporters this week. "Pharmacists and stockists might be doing black marketing and that needs to be checked."
The federal health ministry wrote to Maharashtra, 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 - where up to five million 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.