A new political row broke out on Sunday between the Maharashtra government and former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis over the latter’s apparent involvement in procuring supplies of remdesivir through a pharma company based in Daman, and his intervention to prevent the Mumbai Police from questioning a director of the company.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray did not speak on the controversy, but senior cabinet members from the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress attacked Fadnavis for procuring the medicine on his own, questioned his intentions, and accused him of interfering in the work of the police.
Remdesivir, developed as a drug for Ebola, is in high demand for the treatment of Covid-19, even though its benefits have not been established by research. The broad spectrum antiviral is in short supply, and the government has prohibited its export.
The fracas began late on Saturday night, when a Mumbai-based director of Bruck Pharma Pvt Ltd was summoned by the Bandra Kurla Complex police for questioning after receiving what Mumbai Police said was “specific information” that the company was holding 60,000 remdesivir injections in stock in the city.
The police summons came at the end of a day on which Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik accused the Centre of instructing pharma companies to not supply remdesivir to the state. Malik warned that the Maharashtra government would have no option but to seize the stocks of such companies.
As the Bruck official was being questioned, Fadnavis, along with senior party colleague Pravin Darekar, landed up at the police station. They scolded police officials for “unnecessarily harassing” the man, and sought an explanation as to why he had been called in.
Fadnavis told reporters outside the police station that Darekar and he had been in touch with the company to supply the drug to Maharashtra, and that the BJP state unit had decided to foot the bill of Rs 4.75 crore for the consignment of remdesivir.
Darekar had visited the company’s manufacturing unit in Daman last Monday. Fadnavis said they had received the necessary approvals from the Centre and the state, and claimed that the BJP had planned to hand over the supply to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray for distribution through government channels.
The Bruck director was allowed to leave after 45 minutes, police said. The police did not seize the stockpile of remdesivir, and no charges were pressed against the company. Fadnavis produced a copy of the permission given by the state government to Bruck Pharma for directly marketing 60,000 remdesivir injections in Maharashtra.
Bruck is one of the 16 manufacturers of remdesivir in India, but it is not among the seven pharma companies that have a licence to market the drug in the country.
State FDA officials appear to have given permission to Bruck on Saturday evening to distribute the drug directly to licenced stockists and hospitals in Maharashtra.
However, police sources said the company did not have this permission when the stock was detected, and summons were issued to the director. FDA officials present at the questioning too were unaware that Bruck had been given the permission, the police sources said.
Another company, BDR Lifesciences, had been given the same permission on Friday. That same day, Kamala Lifesciences, a manufacturing unit of Cipla, received a licence to manufacture liquid remdesivir in its Palghar plant.
Maharashtra Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil said on Sunday that Fadnavis had interfered with the work of the police. He also suggested that the role of the two opposition leaders may be investigated to ascertain if they had breached any rules.
“Putting pressure on police is not proper. Hereafter, if anybody tries, it will not be tolerated,” Walse Patil said.
He said that “an appropriate decision” would be taken after discussions with his cabinet colleagues, on whether to take action against the former Chief Minister for his conduct with police officials.
The Home Minister also disclosed that last week, Darekar had accompanied the Bruck Pharma official to a meeting with FDA Minister Rajendra Shingne of the NCP, and that the company had promised to supply remdesivir to the state government. However, the company later backed out, Patil said.
“Secondly, I have learnt the stock with the company was much larger than what is being stated. The matter will be probed,” Walse Patil said.
State NCP president and Water Resources Minister Jayant Patil said the police action was justified. “In the wake of acute shortage of remdesivir in the state, the police rightly fulfilled their duty to check malpractices and hoarding,” he said.
“The real question is, can any BJP leader without any permission from state government, local authorities or police, procure lakhs of lifesaving drugs?” Patil asked.
Last week, the BJP in Gujarat had controversially distributed remdesivir injections from its party offices in Navsari and Surat. The Gujarat government was also criticised for shipping remdesivir to Uttar Pradesh, with opposition parties alleging that BJP-ruled states were receiving special favours at a time of national crisis.
Fadnavis had said on Saturday that all necessary permissions from the Centre and state had been obtained. “The FDA letter was issued to the company. The BJP has not done any wrong. It was to help Maharashtra,” he had said.
“It was our sincere attempt to get remdesivir for Maharashtra. And accordingly we were all trying when suddenly Bruck Pharma official was detained by Mumbai Police,” Fadnavis had said in a written statement.
He claimed that an officer on special duty (OSD) to a Maharashtra minister had called company officials and asked them threateningly as to how they could provide the drug at the request of the opposition party.
State Congress general secretary and MPCC spokesperson Sachin Sawant said, “What is the fault of police? They had intelligence that a large stock of 60,000 viles of remdesivir has been kept hidden with an exporter which was not reported.”
State BJP president Chandrakant Patil, meanwhile, asked the ruling parties to stop making “childish comments” against the BJP and its leaders to divert attention from its “failures”.
In a statement, Mumbai Police said the director of the pharma company was called “for inquiry based on a specific input verified by facts”. This was necessary in view of complaints of rampant hoarding and black marketing of remdesivir and the difficulties faced by citizens, the police said.
“These facts were explained to the Hon’ble Leaders of Opposition. They were informed that necessary legal action will be taken against those illegally hoarding remdesivir.”
The Indian Express made several attempts to get in touch with representatives of Bruck Pharma, but they could not be contacted. —Inputs from Tabassum Barnagarwala