COVID-19 | PSU with chloroquine capacity idles much of it

At a time when the export of hydroxychloroquine, an anti malarial drug that is also being used in the treatment of COVID-19, is a subject of debate, the country’s only public sector undertaking that makes an allied anti-malarial drug — chloroquine phosphate — is waiting for orders for producing more of the drug.

The Bengal Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Ltd. (BCPL) manufactures chloroquine phosphate and is the only PSU that produces the anti-malarial drug in the country, said Managing Director P. M. Chandraiah. He added that the company “is capable of manufacture of hydroxychloroquine” if the government asks it to do so.

“We have the necessary infrastructure. If asked, we can manufacture hydroxychloroquine. It is only a different formulation,” Mr. Chandraiah told The Hindu.

As far as production of chloroquine phosphate was concerned, the BCPL usually produces three to four lakh tablets annually. “Considering the raw material we have, we can manufacture about 10 lakh tablets in a week’s time,” he said. The BCPL authorities confirmed that there had been no increase in orders for anti-malarial drugs after the outbreak of COVID-19.

Among the other medicines, BCPL — founded by chemist and entrepreneur Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy in 1901 — produces the antibiotic azithromycin, which is in high demand due to the outbreak of the viral infection. Mr. Chandraiah said the annual production of azithromycin at the company was of the value of ₹4 crore. “We can easily scale up our production of azithromycin to a value of ₹10 crore,” he added. Some studies suggest that a combination of hydroxychlroquine and azithromycin could bring down the viral load in COVID-19 patients.

 

‘Why no orders?’

While there is talk of a strategic sale of the PSU, the company has been posting profits in the past few years. BCPL, which employs more than 300 staff, recorded a profit of ₹25 crore in the year 2018-19. BCPL was taken over by the government in 1977 amid persistent losses. Its losses peaked in 2003, touching ₹40 crore. The company registered an annual profit after a gap of about 50 years in 2016-17.

The representatives of the workers’ union are angry that the Centre is not giving orders to the company to produce anti-malarial drugs. “We are surprised that there are private companies involved in production of the anti-malarial drugs while there has been no orders from the Centre to BCPL,” asserted Mrinal Roychowdhury, the general secretary of Bengal Chemical Sramik Karmachari Union. “Does the Union government want the private players to benefit at the cost of PSUs,” he asked. The union is affiliated to CITU, the labour arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Mr. Roychowdhury contended that while work was going on in the production unit of BCPL, there was neither full optimisation of the capacity nor any efforts by the management to secure more orders.

 

Dola Sen, Rajya Sabha MP, who heads the trade union wing of the Trinamool Congress said that it was difficult to not notice that BCPL was not getting any new orders to make anti-malarial drugs.

“The Centre wanted to disinvest the company in 2016 following which the workers went to Calcutta High Court and got a favourable order against the selling of the company,” said Ms. Sen. “The matter is subjudice before the division bench which means that there should be a status quo but the Centre not giving any new orders of medicine is a clear indication of the Centre’s intention,” she asserted.

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