Prices of scarce Covid-19 drugs soar on India's black market

Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, is used to treat Covid-19 cases as it slows the replication of the virus.
Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, is used to treat Covid-19 cases as it slows the replication of the virus.PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - India faces a grave shortage of at least three drugs essential for treating Covid-19 patients, as the country sees infections surge to over 295,000 a day in a second wave that has shattered its healthcare system.

Growing infections and rapid hospital admissions across the nation have led to soaring demand for drugs like remdesivir, tocilizumab and favipiravir.

Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, is used to treat Covid-19 cases as it slows the replication of the virus.

Chemists and hospitals in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh and Delhi have run out of it entirely.

Doctors say they are asking patients' relatives to procure it themselves. And touts and traders are selling remdesivir at up to six times the official price, which ranges from 899 (S$16) to 3,490 rupees across the seven brands in India.

As the Gujarat state government struggles to ensure adequate supplies, the ruling party chief's announcement about distributing 5,000 remdesivir injections free in Surat, the worst affected city there, prompted accusations of hoarding to create an artificial shortage.

Mr Pramukh Shah, an accountant whose aunt is in a Surat hospital with Covid-19, was livid: "How come only these politicians are getting remdesivir? For three days, I have called over 50 people. I've gone to at least 20 medical shops - there is no stock anywhere."

He ended up paying a tout 24,000 rupees for a single vial of remdesivir.

In Mysuru, police arrested a staff nurse in a private hospital for allegedly selling "fake remdesivir". She was refilling empty vials with saline water.

As the shortage fuels panic buying, some medical professionals accused others of prescribing the drug injudiciously. Dr Hemant Deshmukh, dean of KEM Hospital in Mumbai, said: "Remdesivir is not a wonder drug. We can use it only for those presenting with a moderate degree of the disease, not on extremely critical patients."

He noted that it is not recommended for people aged below 18 and weighing under 40kg, those with renal impairments, severely poor oxygen saturation, and those not on oxygen support.

But in Mumbai's Lilavati Hospital, Dr Jalil Parkar felt doctors were being unfairly blamed for the shortage and dismissed debates about the drug's effectiveness as "academic".

He said: "We follow global treatment protocol. If I should not use remdesivir, has any other line of treatment been suggested? When a patient comes with low oxygen and requires ventilation, what else should I do?"

He said the drug helped patients leave intensive care 30 per cent to 40 per cent faster, thus helping the hospital accommodate the surge of new patients in the second wave.

Experts say only hastened production can raise the drug supply.

Chandigarh's drug inspector said tocilizumab, an immunosuppressive drug, was currently out of stock in most north Indian states but Cipla, the only supplier, would send the injection in batches soon.

The seven remdesivir makers in India had reduced production levels in October last year, when Covid-19 infections dropped in the country.

"The government did not stockpile remdesivir in expectation of a second wave," a pharma source said, adding that ramped-up production and the export ban would resolve the scarcity by next month.