Booming business in the time of flu
Sickness Can Bring Pain As Well As Profit. A Look At Companies & Retailers Who Rake In Money When Epidemics Hit
Chennai: At a time when people are reeling under the fear of the flu, the old saying 'Where there is a will, there is a way' can also be interpreted as 'When there is a disease, there are big bucks' -- for those in the business of medicine.
Reaping in the moolah in the times of H1N1 are the business houses making and marketing Tamiflu, dealers of surgical face masks, chemists and of course, blackmarketeers. With reports of deaths pouring in due to the complications arising out of the flu, people have been flocking to designated hospitals to get themselves tested.
The city is also beginning to run out of masks -- or so claim the wholesellers and chemists, to jack up their prices. The prices of masks have shot up three-fold in the last four days, thanks to the growing awareness among people about precautions to be taken, which is also seeing a gradual but steady increase in the sale of disinfectants and hand-wash products across the city.
Text messages are also floating around peddling dubious home remedies like using eucalyptus oil on handkerchiefs and masks, claiming that the tip came from the National institute of Virology. Other such measures being text-messaged around include the use of tulsi (basil) leaves with two black peppers -- crushed together and swallowed.
Here's a look at how one man's pain is another man's gain. Those raking in the big bucks in the time of the flu are:
Roche is raking it in big-time, but others aren't doing too badly either. Vitamins and paracetamols are in demand. Makers of anti-bacterial and alcoholic hand gels and wipes (for instance, Reckitt Benckiser) and suppliers of swine flu kits (like Religare) are running to keep up with demand. Ever since India's first recorded H1N1 death, Religare alone has sold over 200 kits worth Rs 500 each, a jump from the 700 that it sold over the last three months.
With the Centre set to lift the ban on production and sale of the anti-H1N1 oseltamivir drug (by companies other than Roche, which has the licence for the Tamiflu brand), desi manufacturers like Cipla, Ranbaxy and Hetero Drugs are preparing to launch more affordable, generic versions of the drug.
Cipla's joint managing director Amar Lulla told TOI: "In the past, the production of flu vaccines was almost unprofitable and most companies producing such vaccines had pulled out of the US. This time round the scene could be just the opposite. We are awaiting the government's call for local producers to supply the drug,'' Lulla told TOI.
Ramesh Adige, president of Ranbaxy, said: "Ranbaxy produces the generic equivalent of Tamiflu, the API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) oseltamivir and formulations. If required, Ranbaxy can provide close to a million capsules in the next few weeks to the Indian market.
Then, there's the stampede to develop a vaccine for swine flu (oseltamivir is curative while a vaccine would be proventive). Industry estimates suggest that multinationals in the fray for making the swine flu vaccine, like Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, amongst a host of others, are expected to charge around $6 (approximately Rs 288) per dose although it shouldn't cost more than $1 (Rs 48) per dose to produce it. Pharma companies will tell you it costs billions to develop a vaccine.
Chemists in Chennai are seeing a significant rise in the number of people coming to buy disinfectants like Dettol and other liquid handwash products, eucalyptus oil and vitamin tablets.
In Mumbai, one of the worst H1N1 virushit cities in the country, there has been a surge in the sale of hand sanitisers, disposable tissues, alcohol based disinfectants and skin care wipes, a 'newly introduced'product. At many places in Mumbai, these products are out of stock.
In Chennai, even though the situation is not as serious as in Mumbai and Pune, people are willing to pay higher prices to procure masks. Some of them are even buying dozens of masks and stocking them up. "We have had about 25-30 customers walking in to buy dozens of masks," a dealer on Anna Salai told The Times of India.
"People have been buying handwash products in the last few days and also masks. We are trying to maintain a decent stock of masks, but the supply is not there," said a chemist in Velachery, the home of fouryear-old Sanjay Balakrishnan who succumbed to complications arising out of the influenza last Monday.
There are also reports of masks being sold at exhorbitant prices in the black market. In the last 10 days alone, the prices of the masks have been steadily rising. "Wholesale dealers usually sell N95 masks for Rs 45 to Rs 75 apiece, and the disposable ones for Rs 3.50. But in the last few days, N95 masks were sold at pharmacies and even hospitals for Rs 100 to Rs 175, while the disposable variety cost anywhere between Rs 3 and Rs 15," a dealer said.
"At the moment, we have a stock of regular face masks. There is a constant flow of people coming into buy disinfectants, handwash and face masks. We have not stocked up on N-95 masks as they are now being priced exhorbitantly. Only last week, they were being sold for Rs 25-30," said Radhakrishnan of Vasanth Medicals.
"As of Wednesday, masks are being sold even to the chemists at Rs 300 per piece. We cannot charge that much from the consumer and lose our regular business, as it will look like as if we are taking advantage of this situation," he said
But the government has already stepped in to prevent such blackmarketing of masks. Assistant health officers (AHOs) of the Chennai corporation have been directed to take severe action against the traders who sell surgical masks at higher prices.
This follows a high-level visit by a team of doctors from Ripon Buildings to Nainiappan Naickan Street on Broadway on Wednesday, who found that the wholesale surgical mask dealers were fleecing customers.
"The AHOs may even go to an extent of cancelling trade licences to those shops, if the latter continue to sell masks at higher prices," Chennai Corporation commissioner Rajesh Lakhoni told TOI.
Taking a serious note of the violations, the public health wing of the Chennai Corporation has taken up the issue with the commercial taxes department to take stringent action against erring traders.
People who have complaints of being fleeced by dealers can call the corporation's toll-free helpline number 1913.
Even Indian websites about the H1N1 virus have witnessed heavy traffic in the last few days. People from Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Delhi are clicking away for information.
Sites with domain names dedicated to the flu in India like www.swinefluindia.com
, and www.swinefluindia.org
recorded the highest traffic on Tuesday. "We have seen an unprecedented growth in traffic on our site. We have received a lot of mails and our page rank on Google has improved drastically,'' said a spokesperson of swinefluindia.com.