Over the past 15 months, the increase in demand for drugs to treat Covid-19 has been intense and has had fatal consequences for patients.
But navigating this ebb and flow of demand is a rather low-key group of companies supplying the drugs on their own or through alliances with larger drug or vaccine manufacturers. And it hasn’t been an easy race, as the fortunes of these drugs fluctuate with each government opinion recommending a drug for the treatment of Covid-19 or removing it from the list entirely. This has been the case with antivirals like remdesivir and favipiravir or, more recently, ivermectin, an older antiparasitic drug.
But these companies, little known outside pharmaceutical circles, have assumed the responsibility of making these drugs available as needed. And, remarkably, they did not hesitate to invest and innovate.
Take Brinton Pharmaceuticals from Pune, for example. It manufactures favipiravir and ivermectin, among others, and recently increased its production capacity to meet the increased demand for these drugs. And then the Center removed it from the recommended list.
Rahul Darda, president and CEO of Brinton, explains that they adapt production to demand. The recently produced drugs have been supplied to states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal, he says.
Explaining how Brinton, seven, started making Covid-19 products, he says research over the past year has shown positive results from studies of favipiravir in Japan, China and Russia. So the company started by making 200 mg favipiravir (where patients were to take 18 pills a day, in two doses), and also made a shortened version to 400 mg. “In India there is now the possibility of differentiated products,” he said, adding that their entry into manufacturing Covid-related products was in response to local needs.
Now that demand may decline, he says, they are looking for alternative indications or uses for this antiviral drug. Darda is a second generation entrepreneur from a family in pharmaceutical distribution.
Interestingly, there is a subcontracting network that reveals more companies that manufacture these drugs. BDR Pharma and Optimus Pharma supply Brinton, says Darda, even as these companies explore their own markets locally and abroad. BDR also supplies favipiravir to Sun Pharma and remdesivir to Cipla. And the latter is also subcontracted to Sovereign Pharma. Besides Optimus, which supplies favipiravir to the largest drug manufacturers, there is also 10-year-old Lasa Supergenerics in this segment.
VAV Life Sciences is a low-profile biopharmaceutical company that manufactures essential lipid ingredients used in drug delivery and has researched its use in cancer drugs. But its moment in the sun, so to speak, has come to be one in four global companies that make phospholipids, for Covid-19 mRNA vaccines. It provides a US-based contract development and manufacturing organization that also supplies Pfizer and Moderna for their mRNA vaccines. The company was expanding its plant in Ratnagiri (Maharashtra) when there was an increase in local requirements for similar lipid ingredients for amphotericin, the injectable used in the treatment of mucormycosis or “black fungus” disease.
In a previous interaction, Arun Kedia, Managing Director of VAV LS, responds to the global demand to waive intellectual property (IP) protection on Covid-19 products, including vaccines. “Intellectual property is overrated,” he said, adding that “India can generate its own IP address”.
The league of little-known companies entering the larger zone includes Shilpa Medicare, which is in an alliance to manufacture Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine at its facility in Dharwad (Karnataka). It would also have become a company of interest to other vaccine makers seeking to increase production, as well as private equity seeking to invest. Clearly, the pandemic has helped to lay the groundwork for a new start for small businesses coping with the heavy lifting at hand.