In an interview that will both shock and distress people, the Chairman and Managing Director of Hindustan Syringes & Medical Devices, India’s largest manufacturer of medical syringes, has said the country faces a shortage of auto-disable syringes (to be used and thrown away) for Covid-19 vaccination purposes. Mr. Rajiv Nath squarely blamed the government for this when he said it had failed to order syringes in advance, despite the fact that since April 2020 the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry, of which he is the Forum Coordinator, has been continuously asking the government to place orders. Mr. Nath agreed this means the vaccine problem in terms of the insufficient availability of Covid vaccines, because the government failed to place orders in advance, is almost identically replicated in the case of syringes. When asked whether the audience would be right in interpreting this as government “irresponsibility” he answered “very much so”. Mr. Nath added: “It could have been handled better. This crisis wasn’t necessary.”
In a 28-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Mr. Rajiv Nath, who is also the Forum Coordinator of the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry, gave some astonishing details about the government’s lack of response to the industry when asked how many syringes it would require. He said since April 2020 the industry has been repeatedly in touch with the government to find out but has not got a clear answer. He said the industry has frequently asked for a tripartite meeting between vaccine manufacturers, syringe manufacturers and the government but this was not arranged. As recently as the 14th of September, Mr. Nath himself wrote to the Health Secretary, Rajesh Bhushan, asking for syringe requirements up to March 2023 but even today, three weeks later, there has been no reply.
Mr. Nath made a further point. Although the government can easily calculate how many syringes it requires, the order so far placed on his company (Hindustan Syringes & Medical Devices) for 2022 is just 75 million. Clearly the government will need several multiples of that figure but orders have not been placed as yet although 2022 is only 10-11 weeks away.
Mr. Nath said he had contacted both his international customers and the Indian government early last year to explain they needed to place orders in advance for syringes, so that production could be ramped up. His foreign customers did so by June. The Indian government did not respond till October and only placed its first firm orders in December.
As a result, Mr. Nath said he and other syringe manufacturers would read the newspapers to find out what quantity of vaccines are being ordered by the government and then extrapolate from that how many syringes would be needed. The government failed to directly contact and directly inform them.
As a result, Mr. Nath said, the situation the country faces today is that we are producing more vaccines than we have syringes for.
The government is now forcing manufacturers like Hindustan Syringes & Medical Devices to stop production for export purposes or for the WHO and UNICEF and divert production to the domestic market. As a result, UNICEF has already “rapped (his company) on the knuckles”.
As of Monday the government has also placed a curb on exports of syringes. Mr. Nath said last year the average monthly export for the industry as a whole was 120 million syringes. In the early months of this year it touched 130 million. Now, however, only 40 million syringes can be exported in October and 40 million more in November. The figure for December and January is 90 million each.
Mr. Nath pointed out his company alone exports 50 million syringes on average each month. The 40 million cap means that it simply will not be able to honour its commitments and, therefore, runs the risk of annoying its international customers and perhaps losing markets as well.
Worse, the government’s curb on exports has also restricted the export of syringes that are not necessary for Covid-19 vaccination in India. The Pfizer vaccine requires a special syringe which Mr. Nath’s company makes. Even though this is not used in India its export is restricted. The same applies to other types of syringes which are not needed for Covid-19 vaccination purposes. Their export is also restricted.
Therefore, Mr. Nath pointed out it’s not just the policy of restricting exports that is problematic but also the blanket restriction on syringes which cover types not needed for Covid-19 vaccination in India.
Mr. Nath also revealed that the industry has repeatedly asked the government to bring the small manufacturers who came forward to make a variety of necessary Covid-19 equipment, such as PPE suits, under the PLI Scheme but the government has failed to do so.
The above is a paraphrased precis of Mr. Rajiv Nath’s interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire. Although recounted from memory it is not inaccurate. However, there’s a lot more in the interview than has been covered by this press release. Please see the full interview for both the details that Mr. Nath gives and for the argument he makes