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India drops export ban on drug being tested for COVID-19 after Trump threat

Trump clashes with doctors on virus treatment

New Delhi — Hours after President Donald Trump warned of "retaliation" if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to allow the export of an anti-malarial drug being tested as a possible treatment for the new coronavirus, India said it would supply hydroxychloroquine to "nations that have been badly affected," without naming the United States or any other country specifically. 

"In view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would licence paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine in appropriate quantities to all our neighbouring countries who are dependent on our capabilities. We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic," Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said

Hydroxychloroquine has long been used as an anti-malarial treatment and is approved as such, along with several other key uses, in the U.S. It is now among several drugs being tested as a coronavirus therapy, but Mr. Trump described it as a "game-changer" even before its efficacy against COVID-19 is established, putting him at odds with his own senior medical experts.

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India supplies more than a quarter of the world's generic drugs. Last month India restricted exports of 26 pharmaceutical ingredients and the medicines made from them to ensure domestic stockpiles. 

Hours before India's decision to allow the export, Mr. Trump said during a White House COVID-19 briefing that "there may be retaliation" if India doesn't agree to export hydroxychloroquine. 

"For many years, they've been taking advantage of the United States on trade. So I would be surprised if that were his [Modi's] decision. He'd have to tell me that. I spoke to him Sunday morning, called him, and I said, we'd appreciate you allowing our supply to come out. If he doesn't allow it to come out. That would be OK. But of course, there may be retaliation. Why wouldn't there be?" Mr. Trump said. 

The Indian government downplayed the threat by the U.S. president, saying there was "unnecessary controversy" over the drugs and insisting the restrictions on exports were always meant to be "temporary steps." 

Virus Outbreak Trump Drug
Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug being tested as a treatment for the COVID-19 diseased caused by the new coronavirus, is seen in pill form. John Locher/AP

"Our first obligation is to ensure that there are adequate stocks of medicines for the requirement of our own people," said a spokesperson for India's foreign ministry. "After having confirmed the availability of medicines for all possible contingencies currently envisaged, these restrictions have been largely lifted."

India, however, has just begun to witness a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, with the number of confirmed patients doubling in four days. Nearly 4,800 people have been infected so far and 124 have died despite an ongoing three-week nationwide lockdown set to end on April 14. 

The lockdown seems to have slowed the spread of the coronavirus to a large extent, given the population densities of the world's second most populous nation, but experts believe the number of cases could still swell to hundreds of thousands. Several Indian media organizations reported Tuesday, quoting anonymous official sources, that the government is already considering extending the lockdown.

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