The move has led to “panicking” in European markets where India accounts for 26 per cent of generic drug imports, one industry group said, while the US - which also relies on India for generic pharmaceuticals - said it was assessing what impact the move would have.
The Indian government has not provided a reason for the export ban, simply stating that the export of 26 active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), and the medicines made from them, was “hereby restricted with immediate effect and till further orders”.
But with India itself sourcing 13 of the 26 APIs from Hubei province in China, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, it is widely assumed that India is moving to protect its own populace from any possible shortages.
Dinesh Dua, chairman of the Pharmaceuticals Export Promotion Council of India (Pharmexcil), told Reuters that “if coronavirus is not contained, then in that case there could be acute shortages” of the drugs in question.
“I am getting a huge number of calls from Europe because it is very sizably dependent on Indian formulations… So they are panicking,” Dua said.
British officials moved on Wednesday to reassure the public that it was not currently experiencing any drug shortages, and that plans already in place to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit meant the UK was already fairly resilient to disruptions in the global supply of medicines.
“There are currently no medicine shortages as a result of Covid-19,” a spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
“The country is well prepared to deal with any impacts of the coronavirus and we have stockpiles of generic drugs like paracetamol in the event of any supply issues.”
Sandra Gidley, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, urged individuals to resist the temptation to stockpile drugs themselves, saying this would only “contribute towards potential shortages”.
She said the government had already said that “precautionary steps are being taken to help ensure supply to the UK remains uninterrupted”.
“The Brexit buffer of medicines that was created in preparation for a no-deal means that the UK is well prepared for any potential medicine shortages and has been able to stockpile to maintain access to medicines,” she added.
The FDA in the US said it was working to determine how the restrictions will affect US supplies.
And the chief of WHO operations support and logistics, Paul Molinaro, said the organisation was setting up a group to look at further repercussions in the market that might stem from India's move.
“At the moment it's not as restrictive as we see right now with personal protective equipment, but the fear is that the ripple effects will make shortages in those medicines as well,” Molinaro told a Geneva news conference.
India’s own exposure to coronavirus has been relatively minor, until very recently registering just five in its official count of confirmed cases.
That number leaped to 28 on Wednesday, however, including 15 members of a 21-strong group of Italian tourists visiting the state of Rajasthan. They had travelled to India from the worst-affected Italian region of Lombardy, and all - as well as their Indian driver - are being held in quarantine outside Delhi.
Health minister Harsh Vardhan said India would increase screening measures to cover all international arrivals at airport. Previously he said, arrivals from only 12 countries were being screened.
And ahead of next week’s Hindu festival of Holi, during which Indian families and neighbourhoods come together to throw colour and share food, authorities urged citizens to think twice about organising large gatherings.
Prime minister Narendra Modi said he would not attend celebrations on 10 March, a national holiday to mark the festival. "Experts across the world have advised to reduce mass gatherings to avoid the (virus) spread,” Mr Modi said in a tweet. “Hence, this year I have decided not to participate.”