Lata* (name changed) had a harrowing week after her regular drug supplier told her that he couldn’t find the anti-epileptic medicine her nine-year-old child has been taking for years. With the medicine stock to last two more days, she ran from pillar to post, enquiring at pharmacies and distributors in Ernakulam district, but no one could find even a single bottle of the syrup, which, if missed a dose, could trigger an epileptic attack.
“I was told that the supply had stopped and a new order couldn’t be placed. My friends looked for the medicine in Kottayam, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Kannur and Thiruvananthapuram, and finally, a friend got one bottle from a pharmacy on the premises of Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital. Another three bottles were procured from a pharmacy in Kochi. It was an order someone placed and failed to pick up a few months ago,” recalls Lata whose son requires at least five bottles of the Schedule-H category drug (which cannot be purchased without the prescription of a qualified doctor) a month.
Lata’s is not an isolated case. With Kerala shutting down for the second time to check the second wave of Covid-19, the state appears to be facing a shortage of life-saving drugs. Logistic issues, manpower shortage for supply and panic buying are said to be the reasons for the scarcity.
Adding to the panic is the rumours that the stocked-up medicines with suppliers could hardly last three months after which there could be a dearth of essential drugs. There are a few e-commerce sites that deliver drugs, but again logistic issues consume time which may delay delivery.
But pharmaceutical professionals insist that there is no need for worry.
Amjad, a pharmacist based in Kochi, admits that the supply is less, but there’s no threatening shortage. “Neuro, cancer, nephro, cardiac, psychiatric, transplant treatment drugs and the ones for lifestyle diseases are not short in production or stock. The problem lies with staff shortage after people get affected and are placed in quarantine. That’s natural. We expect the issue to be solved in a couple of days,” he says.
The scariest part is panic buying, which is unnecessary. Amjad says, “Fearing shortage, people stock up drugs for five and six months. In the case of expensive medicines, affordability is a factor too. When people stock medicines in bulk, someone who can’t afford that will be affected.”
A drug manufacturing company executive who is in charge of the sales in Kottayam and Kochi districts, says, “There need not be any concern regarding medicine shortage for a long time. There’s enough production and stock of life-saving and generic drugs. It’s just an issue of logistics. Our consignment that was to arrive last week is stuck at Maharashtra and will reach in two days.”
An official with a leading healthcare product manufacturer too opined that there is no scarcity of essential medicines in the state.
“It’s a false panic,” said the official, who wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s true that manufacturers have stopped production of a few broad-spectrum anti-viral drugs like Remdesivir that have a shorter shelf life. When the number of cases decreased, the situation was overlooked and the production was halted, but since there’s ample import, there won't be any shortage of anti-viral drugs. Resuming production would take time, but that’s just the case of anti-viral medication. The rest of the medicines would not face any shortage,” he ensures, adding, “Pharmaceutical companies have a rollout plan for at least six months. Medicines for six months would be stocked up in surplus always to face any crisis. Even when the anticipated volume exceeds in demand, that can be managed.”
Muhaimin Aboobaker, who has been coordinating with medical representatives to ensure the supply of essential drugs across Kerala during the floods and COVID pandemic, observes that panic buying has always been a threat. “We had faced a dearth of emergency medicines in the first leg of the pandemic during the first lockdown last year. But this time, there is enough stock. But people, fearing a crisis, are stockpiling medicines for months. Not only does it add to the panic, but it causes a delay in many patients getting medicines, due to the network, supply chain and logistics issues. As of now, there’s no looming crisis.”
Due to the scare and widespread demand, even equipment like pulse oximeters and oxygen concentrators have entered the black market.
Amjad says, “The price has increased for equipment in the wake of the Covid crisis. Good that the Chief Minister addressed the issue, but the manufacturers themselves have increased the price of this equipment. Last year, pulse oximeters which were priced at Rs 700 are now priced at Rs 1500-1800.”
Amjad points at the magnitude of the scare that leads to scarcity of drugs. “Earlier, antiviral drugs used to be sold countertop, but after people who have mild or no symptoms started buying and stocking up the medicines, now those are given only through hospitals,” he says.
The flip side of panic buying is that stocking up medicines in improper conditions could have a dangerous effect. As a chemist puts it, “Medicines could cross expiry date, and storing it in unsuitable conditions could make things worse too.”