By Dan De Luce, Abigail Williams and Carol E. Lee
WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials are asking India to lift restrictions to give the U.S. access to pharmaceutical ingredients needed to produce a range of drugs, amid fears of a potential U.S. drug supply shortage prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, three sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.
The two governments are holding discussions aimed at easing newly imposed restrictions on pharmaceutical exports from India, which Delhi introduced to ensure the country would have medicine needed to handle the pandemic inside of its borders, the sources said.
With coronavirus potentially disrupting the global supply chain for medicine, India earlier this month restricted the export of 26 pharmaceutical ingredients and the medicines made from them, including acetaminophen — a common pain reliever. India is the world’s leading supplier of generic drugs and is a key source for active pharmaceutical ingredients, or APIs, used to produce a range of medicines.
Apart from legal constraints on exports, India is on a 21-day lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that has hampered production and shipping of pharmaceuticals and other cargo. As a result, Trump administration officials also are trying to hammer out what drugs are available in Indian companies’ stockpiles, said a congressional aide who was briefed on the discussions.
“What do they have available for purchase? This is something the administration is trying to work through with the Indians,” the aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told NBC News.
Asked about the U.S. request to India, a State Department spokesperson said, “We are collaborating to try to ensure that critical manufacturing and supply chains for pharmaceuticals, healthcare technology, and personal protective equipment remain open even as large portions of our countries are shut down to reduce the risk of transmission.“
India’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Health industry analysts say limits on exports from India could cause shortages of vital drugs in the U.S. as hospitals brace for an influx of coronavirus patients. American health workers say they are particularly concerned about a possible shortage of anti-malarial drugs, albuterol or inhalers, and sedatives like fentanyl used for patients on ventilators.
Starting in the 1990s, U.S. companies have increasingly relied on imports of pharmaceutical products from India and China, because of cheaper manufacturing costs and less stringent regulations.
The coronavirus forced some Chinese drug factories to close, but production has since resumed. The closures affected India’s generic drug industry, which relies heavily on raw ingredients from China for antibiotics and other medicine.