At the heart of the endeavor is India’s race to wrest control from China, which supplies almost 70% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients — or the bread-and-butter chemicals — that go into the medicines produced by the Indian pharmaceutical industry

On the edge of Hyderabad in southern India, a vast patch of arid shrub-land the size of about 14,000 football fields is becoming a testing ground for a model that could help wean the world off its dependence on Chinese drug ingredients.

This empty site of the Hyderabad Pharma City, marked out by scuffed sign posts and a rubble-strewn access road is expected to attract about $8.4 billion and employ 560,000 people in hundreds of sprawling plants. Within two years once land is allotted, officials say, it will be rolling out vital raw ingredients for medicines like penicillin, ibuprofen and anti-malarials that make their way around the world.

At the heart of the endeavor is India’s race to wrest control from China, which supplies almost 70% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients — or the bread-and-butter chemicals — that go into the medicines produced by the Indian pharmaceutical industry. It’s a vast project that shows how governments are growing increasingly concerned about China’s stranglehold over drug supplies — as well as the challenges they face in loosening it.

India’s ability to secure not just its own drug supply but that of Africa, the Americas and Europe is at stake, since it supplies most of the generics sold in American pharmacies and hundreds of countries globally. India’s reliance on China to keep raw material supply going is increasingly fraught, because the two countries often engage in skirmishes along the border and China has in recent years increasingly used its trade advantages against other countries during political disagreements.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has eagerly promoted his country as the “pharmacy of the world,” but the glaring dependence of India’s $42 billion drug manufacturing industry — much of which is headquartered in Hyderabad — was exposed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In early 2020, China locked down Hubei province, its own medicine manufacturing heartland, as the coronavirus spread outside of Wuhan. That caused missed shipments and shortages, with API prices surging as much as 100% in India and around the world.

“When we started planning Pharma City, we started looking at various regions, including China. What makes China more attractive?” he says, citing various advantages from cheaper capital and infrastructure, along with the ability to stream-line approvals. “Within Pharma City we’ve brought in elements that can bring down capital and operating costs for the industries in a range of anywhere between 25% and 30%.”
In Hyderabad itself some of India’s biggest pharma tycoons are openly blunt about Modi’s drive.

“As far as commerce goes, nationalism doesn’t work,” says G.V. Prasad, the co-chair of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd. “If China is offering something cheaper, we’ll buy from China,” he says, pointing out the Chinese-made furniture in his office. “In the end it’s business.”