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The mystery behind India’s stance on HCQ


Active member
On April 7, the official spokesperson of the external affairs ministry (MEA) “discouraged”speculation or politicisation, inter alia, of the government’s decision to allow the exports of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and paracetamol through licenses.

Specifically, he said, “With regard to paracetamol and Hydroxychloroquine, they will be kept in a licensed category and their demand position will be continuously monitored. However, their stock position could allow our companies to meet the export commitments that they had contracted.”

The spokesperson also clarified that “temporary restrictions on the exports of a number of pharmaceutical products” were placed to ensure that there were “adequate stocks” of these products “for the requirement of our own people.” Following these restrictions, a “comprehensive assessment was made of all possible requirements under different scenarios.” The spokesperson emphasised that the decision of the export of drugs was made “after having confirmed the availability of medicines for all possible contingencies…”.

This statement is reassuring, but it would have been more so if it was backed with statistics of current and projected HCQ requirement, availability, proposed export, production capacity, and if active ingredients for it are needed from China. This is particularly because of apprehensions that India made the decision under pressure from the United States (US).

Currently, HCQ is allowed to be used in India as a prophylactic for frontline health workers in the fight against Covid-19 and household contacts of laboratory confirmed cases.

Ill-informed criticism of government’s decisions should always be avoided, particularly so in these difficult times. However, an examination of the HCQ’s decision’s timing can neither be speculative nor its politicisation.

Government documents are revealing in respect of HCQ decisions.

On March 25, the Director-General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) prohibited the export of HCQ through a formal notification. However, despite the prohibition, under the notification, Indian pharmaceutical companies were permitted to fulfil their existing export HCQ contracts. Exports could also be made on “humanitarian grounds, on case to case basis, on the recommendation of the Ministry of External Affairs”.

On April 4, the DGFT issued another notification on HCQ exports in which it withdrew the exceptions made to the prohibition on export of HCQ in its March 25 notification. Clarifying the effect of this step, the April 4 notification stated, “The export of Hydroxychloroquine and formulations made from Hydroxychloroquine, therefore, shall remain prohibited, without any exception”.

On April 4, US President Donald Trump called Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the same day, at a press briefing, after the call, Trump said “I called Prime Minister Modi of India this morning. They make large amounts of hydroxychloroquine…And I said they — had a hold…And I said I’d appreciate it if they would release the amounts that we had ordered. And they are giving it serious consideration”.

The External Affairs Ministry statement of the Modi-Trump telephone conversation did not mention Trump’s request. It did, though, note, “Stressing the special relationship between the two countries, the Prime Minister reiterated India’s solidarity with the USA in overcoming this global crisis together. The two leaders agreed to deploy the full strength of the India-US partnership to resolutely and effectively combat Covid-19”.

At a press briefing on April 6, Jonathan Karl, the White House correspondent of ABC News asked Trump “Are you worried about retaliation to your ban of medical goods like Indian Prime Minister Modi’s decision to not export hydroxychloroquine to the United States and other country (sic)?” The question was asked in the context of Trump’s decision of April 3 to disallow US companies from exporting personal protective equipment required by health care workers attending to Covid-19 afflicted patients. Canada was particularly enraged with the decision.

In a rambling response, Trump made several points some of which require interpretation — that he did not like India’s decision to ban HCQ exports to the US; that he had not heard that Modi had personally taken the decision for the US; that he knew Modi had stopped it for other countries; that he had a good talk with Modi (comment: but he got wrong the day of the talk by mentioning Sunday, though the conversation happened on Saturday); that he would be surprised if Modi did not accept his request, for India has for many years taken advantage of the US on trade. At the conclusion of his remarks, he said there may be retaliation.

This is obviously an indication that other countries may retaliate to his medical goods export ban.

On April 6, the Indian government decided to set aside its April 4 HCQ decision, and to revert to some aspects of the March 25 notification. The real issue is the basis on which government changed its mind. Did the concerned authorities not look at the HCQ situation fully before taking the April 4 decision? If they did, then why did the government take a different view on April 6? The external affairs ministry needs to clarify to prevent speculation that India came under Trump’s pressure when he has banned export of essential medical goods himself.


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