China Coronavirus And API Sourcing – A Threat… Or An Opportunity For India?

‘2015 – Year of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients’ (API), announced the Government of India by a Press Release on February 25, 2015. This came after ascertaining that over-dependence on imports of bulk drugs or API, especially from China, is detrimental to India’s health interest. This decision was also in sync with the freshly announced, and well-publicized government objective regarding ‘Make in India’.

Two years down the line, on July 15, 2017, eHEALTH publication also deliberated on this issue in an article – ‘Why over dependence on APIs imported from China is harmful for India?’ It reiterated, India has proven capabilities in the generic drug formulations, but over dependence on China for sourcing – 70-75 per cent of APIs does not augur well for the Indian pharmaceutical sector. Because, as any interruption in supply from China can badly impact the sector, jeopardizing the health of millions of people, not just in India, but across the world, as well.

The reason for Indian drug formulation makers depending on China-supplied APIs, is mainly for its low cost, and not for any technological other reason, the article said. Regardless of the India’s announcement – ‘2015 as the year of API’, the API industry continued to struggle without much tangible support. Despite a lot of decisions still being in the pipeline, let me hasten to add, some inconclusive signs of early recovery have been captured in this space by some recent studies.

With the outbreak of the recent ‘coronavirus’ menace, the moment of truth has arrived in the country. On the one hand, it is posing a threat to the country’s API sourcing, on the other it could throw open a door of opportunity for Indian API manufacturers, as the Chinese API prices would start climbing up. But the question is, in which way it would evolve? In this article, I shall focus on this aspect of the new coronavirus menace, starting with a brief description of the background.

China coronavirus – when the alarm bell rang: 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), on December 31, 2019, it was alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. The virus did not match any other known virus, raising a great concern. No one knows how it affects people who are sick with it – how they can be treated, and what the countries can do to respond. One week later, on 7 January, Chinese authorities confirmed that they had identified a new virus.

What it does?

This new virus is a coronavirus, which is a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, such as SARS and MERS.

Since the virus, reportedly was first detected in Wuhan in people who had visited a local seafood and animal market, it is likely to have transmitted from an animal to humans. Nevertheless, several known coronaviruses are known to be circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans. The new coronavirus has been named novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and is the seventh coronavirus known to affect humans.

W.H.O has been working with Chinese authorities and global experts to learn more about it. However, because this is a coronavirus, which usually causes respiratory illness, the world body has circulated advice to people on how to protect themselves and those around them from getting the disease.

The damage, thus far:

Bloomberg on February 02, 2020 reported the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak has risen to 305, with 14,555 confirmed cases worldwide.  The first death outside of China took place in the Philippines on February 01. Alarmingly, 2019-nCoV infections have also spread to at least 15 other countries. These numbers keep increasing.

Nearer home, India, on January 30, 2020, also announced its first case. “One positive case of Novel Coronavirus – a student studying in Wuhan University — has been reported from Kerala,” said a statement released by the Health Ministry. On February 02, 2020, Reuters reported the second case of coronavirus in Kerala.

This scenario prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to meet again on the last Thursday and declare the new coronavirus an international public health emergency.

The impact on the pharma industry:

Responding to the criticality of this situation, health authorities across the world are trying to put in place effective ways to overcome this crisis. In the healthcare space, medical scientists are ‘racing to develop a vaccine to protect people from the virus.’ One lab in California, reportedly. has plans for a potential vaccine to enter human trials by June or July this year.

Alongside, many are wondering about the looming threat that it poses on the API sourcing from China by the global pharmaceutical industry, including India. However, as I said earlier, some Indian experts, are also sensing an opportunity for country’s API manufacturers to fill the possible void, as it gets created.

API sourcing concern:

An exclusive survey conducted by Kemiex, titled ‘Coronavirus impact analysis for APIs, feed and food additives,’ among 97 life sciences professionals, published by them on January 20, 2020, reports some interesting findings. Some of the key ones are, as follows:

  • 85 percent experts foresee API and other ingredient supply disruptions, with 35 percent expecting a high and 50 percent envisaging a low impact.
  • Orders planned for the 1st quarter with delivery in 2nd quarter are expected to be mostly affected, while disruptions might continue a quarter. Only a minority believes the disruptions will last until year end or beyond 2020.
  • The biggest impact is expected from extended Chinese New Year holidays and delayed production start.
  • A first impact analysis based on preliminary information shows that only selected products such as amino acids (taurine…), certain vitamins and other APIs and additives could be affected.
  • European and other suppliers report readiness and stocks to secure delivery to end users during interruptions in China, or some of its districts. respectively.

However, other reports also underscore, with the proliferation of the new coronavirus the incidences of confirmed infection with clear symptoms and deaths are also expected to increase. This may lead the Chinese government to extend lock down several commercially important parts of the country. Which, in turn, could impact, among others, manufacturing and shipments of API and pharma ingredients for several months.

Some green shoots are now visible in India?

Quoting a JM Financial analysis, some media reports predicted, a worsening coronavirus crisis may benefit Indian API manufacturers, as it observed some green shoots in the Indian API manufacturing space. Analyzing the stocks of six local API manufacturers – Galaxy Surfactants Ltd., Fine Organic Industries Ltd., Navin Fluorine International Ltd., SRF Ltd., PI Industries Ltd. and UPL Ltd., it found that the stocks of these companies have beaten the market trend in recent years. They observed, the robust growth of these companies was fueled by end-user industries, and exports to China – which has closed many chemical facilities on environmental concerns.

Moreover, the increase in overall API demand – caused by shortages triggered by a serious disruption of API production in China’s Hubei province, and restriction of movement within China, is likely to drive the prices up with the spread of the epidemic. The cumulative impact of all this, would possibly help the Indian bulk drug manufacturers, significantly, helping India to tide over the API sourcing crisis.

Conclusion:

‘Scientists are racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine, but it could take years to reach the market,’ as media reports highlight. Meanwhile, researchers are, reportedly, also looking at ways of quickly repurposing existing antiviral drugs to see whether any might work against the new coronavirus.

The serious health menace caused by the new coronavirus that prompted the W.H.O to signal it as a global emergency, has also raised a serious concern on API sourcing. This is because, around 80 percent of the API used by drug formulation manufacturers is sourced from China.

Looking only at this aspect of the issue, and also from the Indian perspective, the point to ponder – is it all threat? Or a veiled opportunity worth cashing-on to neutralize, at least, a part of the API sourcing threat?

Against the backdrop of the Indian Government’s announcements, such as, ‘2015 – Year of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients’ (API), alongside the well-publicized ‘Make in India’ campaign, and some recently reported green shoots in this area – the expectation of an ‘opportunity in waiting’, could well be a reality. Who knows? But, a lurking apprehension still lingers!

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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