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Home > 2023 > China and India - as ’merchants of death’ | Sumanta Banerjee

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 4, January 14, 2023

China and India - as ’merchants of death’ | Sumanta Banerjee

Saturday 14 January 2023, by Sumanta Banerjee


China and India, while fighting with each other over their borders, have however recently become partners as ‘merchants of death’ in the global arena. While China has been accused of giving birth to a chemical that caused Covid-19 and exporting it all over the world, India on a minor scale has been found to be exporting pharmaceuticals that have led to the death of children in Gambia and Uzbekistan.

The term ’merchants of death’ was originally used to describe the bankers and arms manufacturers who funded and weaponised the World War I soldiers who were destined to death.

Later it was expanded to include states which manufactured toxic chemical substances intended to kill and incapacitate enemies in military operations. Nazi Germany developed chemical weapons like poison gas which it used against Jews during the Holocaust. The US produced similar deadly chemicals like napalm that it used to bomb Vietnam during the1960-70 war, killing and maiming hundreds of civilians, destroying their habitats, and polluting the Mekong river. The US also incorporated into its anti-Vietnam military operations, the use of a chemical herbicide called Agent Orange, which led to the devastation of agricultural fields in rural Vietnam. There is thus a chemical component of the military arsenal in modern global warfare.

Background of Covid-19

Following the outbreak of Covid-19 and its global spread, the issue of ailments induced by toxic chemicals and exported from the country of their origins, has assumed importance in today’s debates. Ever since its outbreak, China had been suspected as the source of the pandemic which spread from its experiments in a laboratory in Wuhan - an allegation that Beijing has still not been able to disprove, and is refusing to allow international health experts to examine the state-run Wuhan Institute of Virology where the experiments were carried out.

Ironically however, it was the US government which outsourced a biotechnology to its global rival China for experiments. It funded those experiments in the Wuhan laboratory - as revealed by an American epidemiologist, Andrew Huff, who worked in the Wuhan laboratory, in his recent book `The Truth About Wuhan.’ (2022).

Strange are the ways of rival global powers. They fight with each other at the military level, and yet collaborate at the commercial level by exchanging knowledge of the state-of-art technologies in order to strengthen their respective technological infrastructures.

 Biotechnology has emerged as one such commodity in the global market. It involves the creation of chemicals and manufacturing of drugs and medicines.

India as an exporter of toxic chemical- induced ailments

Although to a limited extent, but in a similar fashion, India has been found to have exported home-made pharmaceuticals to Gambia in Africa, the consumption of which has led to the deaths of seventy children there. The particular cough syrup which was sent to Gambia was manufactured by the Haryana-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals. In Gambia, its parliamentary committee in October probed into the case , and held Maiden Pharmaceuticals culpable and accountable for the deaths of the children. It demanded legal action against the company. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued an alert in October 2022 saying that four pediatric syrups manufactured by India’s Maiden Pharmaceuticals were potentially linked to the deaths of the seventy children in Gambia.

Fast on the heels of the Gambia case, Uzbekistan has come out with the allegation that eighteen children there died after consuming a cough syrup manufactured by an Indian company.

Yet, like China’s attempts to stone-wall international investigation into its Wuhan lab experiments, India is behaving in the same fashion by protecting its Maiden Pharmaceuticals from an independent inquiry into the practices followed by it in manufacturing drugs - some of which have proved to be fatal, as in Gambia. The Indian government’s drug regulator, Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) has given a clean chit to the company saying that no toxins were found in its control samples - ignoring the WHO warning.

In response to Uzbekistan’s allegation, the Uttar Pradesh Drug Control and the CDSCO have decided to investigate the Noida-based firm Marion Biotech which exported its drug to Uzbekistan. Let us await their findings.

 A record of the quality of India’s pharmaceutical exports

India claims that it is the third largest pharma- producer in the world, and the largest exporter of pharmaceuticals. Its pharma exports have been growing by 103% since 2013-14, according to the latest official report released by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) in May, 2022.

Earlier, in January, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the Davos Summit claimed that India was the `Pharmacy to the World’ - announcing how his government had exported home-made pharmaceuticals across the world, thus saving lives.

The recent cases of fatalities in Gambia and Uzbekistan which are traced to Indian-made medicines, expose the falsity our Prime Minister’s braggadocio. These incidents should not be dismissed as isolated accidents. In the recent past, there have been several similar complaints by other countries about sub-standard drugs that they had received from India. Vietnam, on December 23, 2013, blacklisted forty six Indian companies for supplying sub-standard drugs. Nepal banned medicines from sixteen Indian pharma companies for failing to comply with WHO’s principle of GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice).

The pharmaceutical industry has been flourishing by exporting its products, particularly in the wake of Covid-19. India exported medical drugs valued at $ 24.62 billion during 2021-22. But the quality of these products has come under the scanner of medical experts. The Authentication Solution Providers’ Association (ASPA), a non-profit organization working against counterfeiting activities, has found out that incidents related to spurious and substandard drugs increased by 47% from 2020 to 2021. Explaining the reason, ASPA in its report said: “The domestic regulations and legal structures are not as well defined as required. Lack of this structure and gaps in implementation gives criminals a chance to take advantage of the system by plaguing it with substandard, falsified, spurious, or counterfeit medicines and medical equipment.” (Re:’’The State of Counterfeiting in India, 2021’).

Given this state of affairs in the Indian drug manufacturing industry, one can well understand the havoc that it has created in Africa and other countries by selling its deadly products there.

In fact, almost a decade ago, in September 2014, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in an investigative report entitled ’Poor Quality Drugs and Global Trade: A Pilot Study’, warned against this danger by exposing the murderous role of unscrupulous sections of the Indian pharmaceutical industry in exporting sub-standard medicines to Africa and other developing countries. It said: “...Some Indian drug manufacturers cut corners and make substandard drugs for markets with non-existent, under-developed or emerging regulatory oversight, notably Africa.” Assessing the quality of 1470 anti-biotic and tuberculosis drug samples that were made in India and sold in Africa, and five mid-income non-African countries, the report said: “10.9 % of those products failed a basic assessment of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) and the majority of the failures are sub-standard (7 %).” It then made this significant observation: “The distribution of these sub-standard products... are more likely to be found as unregistered products in Africa than in India or non-African countries.”

In other words, these Indian pharmaceutical companies took advantage of the “non-existent, under-developed or emerging regulatory oversight, notably (in) Africa,” as pointed out in the above mentioned NBER, to target these countries for the export of their sub-standard medicines which proved fatal for their children. The earnings from these exports of deadly drugs during all these years, also fattened the Indian exchequer. It was under our Prime Minister’s benign gaze that these two companies - Maiden Pharmaceuticals and Marion Biotech - had a free run in exporting these medicines without going through any check by medical experts. Shouldn’t Narendra Modi, as the head of the state, acknowledge his responsibility for turning a blind eye to these exports that have led to fatalities ?

Global collaboration of ’merchants of death’.

But then, no one expects Narendra Modi to recompense, or even offer apologies to the victims of the medicines that his pharmaceutical companies dumped on Gambia, Uzbekistan and other vulnerable countries with weak resistance to such deadly drugs.

In the era of the much acclaimed globalization, it is not surprising that India would also be a partner in the trade of exporting sub-standard murderous drugs and earning profits from it. While joining, or even presiding over the various global outfits named G - (e.g. G-20), the present Narendra Modi-led government in its exaggerated sense of self-importance, is also patronizing Indian pharmaceutical companies (by relaxing medical and legal restrictions) to enable them to join the global mercantile trade in spurious and deadly pharmaceuticals.

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