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Coronavirus

India lifts export ban of potential coronavirus drug after Trump threat

New Delhi to supply hydroxychloroquine to nations badly hit

India is the biggest producer of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug which US President Donald Trump has touted as a 'game changer' in the fight against coronavirus, though scientists say more testing is needed before it is proven safe and effective against COVID-19.   © AP

NEW DELHI -- India on Tuesday announced it would allow a limited export of an anti-malaria drug seen as helpful in the treatment of the new coronavirus, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump warned of retaliation if New Delhi did not heed his request to supply the medicine to his country.

The South Asian country -- which is the largest producer of hydroxychloroquine, or HCQ, a drug touted by Trump as a "game-changer" in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic -- had on Apr. 4 said the export of the drug and formulations made from it would "remain prohibited, without any exception," as its own COVID-19 cases were beginning to spike.

As of Tuesday morning, India, a country with a population of 1.3 billion, which is currently subject to a three-week lockdown until Apr. 14 to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus, confirmed 4,421 cases, including 114 deaths.

Among Indian pharmaceutical companies manufacturing hydroxychloroquine are Ipca Labs, Cadila Healthcare and Natco Pharma.

"In view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would license [fever and pain-relief drug] paracetamol and HCQ in appropriate quantities to all our neighboring countries who are dependent on our capabilities," Anurag Srivastava, a spokesperson for the ministry of external affairs, said in a statement. "We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic," he added, without specifying which countries.

The move follows a conversation between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during which the American president requested that his country be supplied with hydroxychloroquine.

"India does very well with the United States. For many years, they have taken advantage of the United States on trade... I spoke to [Modi] Sunday morning ... and said we'd appreciate your allowing our supply [of hydroxychloroquine] to come out," Trump said at a media briefing on Monday. "If he doesn't allow it to come out, that would be okay, but of course there may be retaliation."

In his statement, Srivastava said that, like any responsible government, India's first obligation was to ensure that there were adequate stocks of medicines to meet the needs of its own people. "In order to ensure this, some temporary steps were taken to restrict exports of a number of pharmaceutical products."

"In the meanwhile, a comprehensive assessment was made of possible requirements under different scenarios. After having confirmed the availability of medicines for all possible contingencies currently envisaged, these restrictions have been largely lifted," he said.

Srivastava said that paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine would remain in a licensed category, with demand for the two drugs to be continuously monitored. "However, [their stocks] could allow our companies to meet the export commitments they had contracted."

India's ministry of health and family welfare, meanwhile, said there was limited evidence of the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19.

However, "we have allowed [the drug to be taken as a preventive medicine by asymptomatic] health care workers dealing with COVID-19 patients, or other high-risk contacts" such as household caregivers of infected people, Lav Aggarwal, the joint secretary in the ministry, told a press conference on Monday.

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