India restricts syringe exports as demand outstrips supply amid Covid-19 vaccination drive

India is a major global supplier of syringes and this squeeze could impact regular immunisation drives as well as Covid-19 vaccinations in countries that rely on India.
India is a major global supplier of syringes and this squeeze could impact regular immunisation drives as well as Covid-19 vaccinations in countries that rely on India.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Indian syringe manufacturers have expressed concern at a sudden government decision to restrict syringe exports, urging it to allow partial resumption of international shipments without affecting domestic needs.

The Directorate-General of Foreign Trade amended the export policy for "syringes with or without needles" on Monday (Oct 4), moving it from the "free" to "restricted" category. The change requires an exporter to seek government permission for any foreign shipment of syringes.

It was followed by another order on Tuesday that capped monthly exports of syringes at 40 million pieces for October and November and at 90 million for December and January.

India is a major global supplier of syringes and this squeeze could impact regular immunisation drives as well as Covid-19 vaccinations in countries that rely on India.

The country exported more than 1.4 billion syringes in the financial year ended March 2021 and shipped over 552 million pieces between April and July this year. Exports were expected to touch 1.6 billion by March 2022 - a number that now seems unattainable given the new restriction.

While the government has not stated any reason for the decision, it is believed to be the result of an anticipated shortage in auto-disposable (AD) syringes that are being used for India's Covid-19 vaccination drive.

Manufacturing of 0.5ml AD syringes has fallen behind the country's vaccine production. The monthly domestic vaccine output has trebled since April and is expected to reach 300 million doses in October. The daily average of vaccine doses administered has also risen from 1.6 million in May to nearly 8 million in September.

But the country's monthly production capacity of 0.5ml AD syringes was estimated to be just around 89 million as at June this year. Certain states in India, such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, have already reported a shortage of 0.5ml AD syringes.

This mismatch has prompted the government to draw syringes from its buffer stock, raising questions about adequate supply beyond a certain threshold. Meanwhile, a spike in dengue and other seasonal diseases during the ongoing monsoon season has also raised demand for syringes.

"Don't turn off the tap completely is what we have recommended to the government," Mr Rajiv Nath, president of All India Syringe and Needle Manufacturers Association, told The Straits Times.

The body has asked for restrictions to be lifted on syringes that are not being used for Covid-19 vaccination as well as 0.3 ml AD syringes developed for Pfizer's vaccine that has not yet been deployed in India.

"Our exports of syringes should also be kept at 50 per cent of what we gave last year so that at least some supplies are made," he added. "Otherwise it becomes too disruptive for the industry and even our international buyers."

Industry representatives have said such a situation could have been avoided with regular negotiations on better supply chain management between syringe and vaccine manufacturers as well as the government.

India's current annual syringe production capacity is six billion, of which around 30 per cent usually remains spare. But ramping up capacity requires adequate notice so that manufacturers are able to procure raw material such as needles and gaskets.

"You can't reach peak capacity with just a four to six week's notice. You need to plan at least two to four months in advance, and need to have a purchase commitment for at least a six-month horizon," said Mr Nath. "It cannot be a sprint every time."

Singapore is not a major buyer of Indian syringes and the restriction is more likely to adversely affect African and South American countries, such as Sudan, Uganda and Brazil, that rely significantly on Indian syringes for their routine immunisation drives.

Hindustan Syringes & Medical Devices (HMD), one of the world's top manufacturers of disposable syringes, is now saddled with around 35 million syringes that were ready to be shipped out to Sudan and Brazil before the restriction was announced.  It is not clear when they can now be exported.