Amid global uptick in COVID-19 cases, pharma industry’s supply chain may take a hit

On Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took stock of the COVID-19 situation in India and held a high-level virtual meeting.

Since the first case of COVID-19 three years ago, the world lost and won several battles against the notorious virus. Yet, the pandemic is nowhere near the end. The recent surge in COVID-19 cases overwhelmed hospitals, and crematoriums in China have brought back grim reminders of the devastating impact of the virus.

After COVID-19 was reported exactly three years ago in December 2019, the cases spread like wildfire across the globe. In January 2020, India reported its first COVID-19 case in Kerala and the country faced the heat of the pandemic severely.

As the number of COVID-19 cases has soared in China along with other countries, the central government has started reviewing the situation in India.

On Wednesday, Union Minister Mansukh Mandaviya urged the people to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour, including wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, washing hands frequently, and getting vaccinated. He also directed officials to “fully gear up and strengthen surveillance”.

Meanwhile, pharma industry experts have told Financial that the supply chain may be affected if the current wave lasts for an extended period.

India has so far reportedly registered four COVID-19 cases caused by the BF.7 variant — three cases reported from Gujarat and one from Odisha. Reportedly, all four patients were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms and have now recovered.

What is Indian pharma companies’ outlook towards this COVID-19 surge?

Vivek Sehgal, Director General, Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI) told Financial that if the surge in the COVID-19 cases continues, the supply the supply of active ingredients and components which comes mostly from China as well as the import and export of APIs and medicines may be affected.

“The supply of active ingredients and components (mostly from China) as well as the import and export of APIs and medicines may be affected if the current wave lasts for an extended period. On a preparedness front, in India, as a preventive measure, the vaccination drives will have to pick up the pace to ensure that each citizen is safe from this virus,” Sehgal told Financial

OPPI is a representative body of the research-based pharmaceutical companies in India like AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Merck, among others.

“Over the past 3 years, pharmaceutical firms have been adapting quickly to the challenges posed by supply chain disruption and the need to modify business procedures in these unprecedented times when hit by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the cases are rising again, we need to be alert and take into cognisance the various silos across the entire supply chain of the industry that could be impacted as a result of the increase in cases in China,” Sehgal told Financial

On Thursday, the Serum Institute of India (SII) has sought the drug regulator’s approval for market authorisation of its COVID-19 vaccine Covovax as a booster dose for those aged 18 years and above who have been administered two doses of Covishield or Covaxin.

According to a report by PTI, Prakash Kumar Singh, director, government and regulatory affairs, SII, submitted a market authorisation application for the heterologous booster dose of Covovax to the drugs controller general of India (DCGI) on October 17.

As India maintained a consistent decline in COVID-19 in the past couple of months, several pharma companies have reportedly either decreased or halted the production of new COVID-19 vaccines.

In October this year, the Chief Executive Officer of Serum Institute of India (SII), Adar Poonawalla, had said the vaccine manufacturer stopped the production of the Covishield vaccine starting December 2021.

He said that the total stock available at that time, around 100 million doses, had already got expired by December last year.

Is India Prepared?

According to a report by the news agency PTI, SII chief said booster vaccines have no demand as there is “general lethargy” among people and also because they are “fed up with the pandemic.”

“Since December 2021, we stopped the production (of Covishield). We had a stock of a few hundred million doses at that time and of that, 100 million doses have already expired,” said Poonawalla when asked about the update on the Covishield vaccine, the news agency reported.

Consequently, the availability of vaccine doses could pose a challenge in the coming days as there could be a sudden scramble by the unvaccinated to get the shot.

The Centre has reportedly maintained that it has sufficient stocks of vaccines available, even after pharma companies had to cut down Covid vaccine productions due to the low take-up of jabs in India.

According to reports, the random testing of international passengers at airports in India that had stopped after a revision in travel advisories in November-end will start again.

According to data from the country’s Sars-CoV-2 genome sequencing consortium INSACOG, the parent sub-variant BA.5 accounted for 2.5% of all the samples sequenced in India in November.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took stock of the COVID-19 situation and held a high-level virtual meeting. The meeting was attended by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and NITI Aayog CEO, among others.

India has been witnessing a steady decline in cases with average daily cases falling to 158 in the week ending December 19, 2022.

However, a consistent rise in global daily average cases has been reported in the last 6 weeks, with 5.9 lakh daily average cases reported in the last week. Meanwhile, the new and highly transmissible BF.7 strain of the Omicron variant has been found to be behind a wider surge of Covid infections in China.

On Wednesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that he is “very concerned” about the unprecedented wave of COVID-19 cases in China, as the health body urged Beijing to accelerate vaccination of the most vulnerable.

“WHO is very concerned over the evolving situation in China, with increasing reports of severe disease” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a weekly news conference, appealing for detailed information on disease severity, hospital admissions and intensive care requirements.

“WHO is supporting China to focus its efforts on vaccinating people at the highest risk across the country, and we continue to offer our support for clinical care and protecting its health system”, he added.

Meanwhile, in India, the centre has asked the authorities to ramp up genome sequencing across the country. The states have been requested to send samples of all Covid-19 positive cases to INSACOG Genome Sequencing Laboratories (IGSLs) on a daily basis, for sequencing.

In June this year, the Union health ministry had issued Operational Guidelines for Revised Surveillance Strategy in the context of Covid-19 which calls for early detection, isolation, testing, and timely management of suspected and confirmed cases to detect and contain outbreaks of new SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Health minister Mandaviya has again directed officials for ensuring effective implementation of the same.

“This new subvariant of omicron has a very fast transmission rate and there are so many cases reported in China. It is most likely to spread to other parts of the world and even in India, there are a few cases of this new variant. The rate of hospitalization depends on a variety of factors such as immunity and pre-existing comorbidities. It has also been seen that when people become more exposed to COVID and its variants, they develop immunity to the current virus and future variants,” Dr. Amitabha Ghosh, Consultant, Internal Medicine, Manipal Hospitals, Gurugram told Financial

According to Dr. Ghosh, although there are several data that have reported that the mortality rate is not high but one still needs to be careful.

“It is not yet clear which age group is most affected, although persons with inadequate immunity are at a higher risk. In such a situation, vaccination and booster dose can play a major role in fighting the virus. At the same time, one needs to follow the same precautionary measures including maintaining proper hygiene, wearing a mask, washing hands, and so on,” he added.