A shortage of Covid drugs in Kolkata is sending patient families on a harrowing run around. Since last week, the drug Actemra or Tocilizumab disappeared from the market. 53-year-old Rinku Banerjee flew in from Delhi via Jaipur to Kolkata to hunt for the medicine, personally, for her father who is in a south Kolkata nursing home. His doctor wanted to urgently administer Actemra.
"I tried everything...white market, black market, grey market. But it was like banging my head against a wall. I am desperate. Need the medicine desperately for my dad," Ms Banerjee said. "I spoke to numerous people who don't want names mentioned. They are going by references...phone numbers..."
Ms Banerjee arrived in Kolkata on July 10 and till 14th she found nothing. "It's been a harrowing experience, talking to vendors, distributors, manufacturers... but the medicine has disappeared. I don't know what to do... can only hope it will be here soon. That's what I am being told."
Rinku Banerjee is not alone in her plight. Anyone looking for Actemra has drawn a blank across the country all of July. A son flew from Delhi to Patna with vials of Tocilizumab for his father, a senior doctor in the Bihar capital. Why this shortage? Sources say the drug is imported by the pharmaceutical company Cipla. A consignment landed in Mumbai end-June and was virtually cornered by a state government that is struggling with Covid numbers. Some vials did reach Kolkata but were gone in no time.
As a result, a frantic hunt for it - a 400 mg/20 ml vial is supposed to be sold at Rs 29,500 but alleged blackmarketers demanded Rs 40,500 for it and failed to deliver.
What is doing brisk business in the black in Kolkata is Remdisivir. The Indian products - Cipremi from Cipla and Covifor from Hetero - are in short supply. So Remdisivir from Bangladesh is selling under the counter many times the printed price of Bangladeshi Taka 5,000.
Rajendra Khandelwal, Managing Director, Dhanwantry Pharmacies, said, "I interacted with patient family, they paid Rs 20,000 per vial. So Rs 15,000 per vial in black. When asked where did you get this, he said please don't ask, they will kill me."
Experts believe the crisis has to do with production shortage and distribution rules set by the Centre. All Covid-related medicines are being sent directly from the manufacturer to either the government or private hospitals. Nothing is available in pharmacies. The idea is to prevent a blackmarket but has resulted in trauma for patients.
The good news is, Biocon is now producing Itocilizumab which is the same formulation as Tocilizumab and an Actemra consignment is expected any moment. In Bengal it should be available from the 17th, say sources in government.
As for Remdisivir, 600 vials from Hetero have just today been distributed to private hospitals.
The question is, will they be enough and for how long.