India’s Hospitals Are Struggling for Oxygen Supply as Pandemic Surges
An oxygen cylinder in a makeshift ward at an emergency Covid-19 care center set up in New Delhi, India. (Photographer T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

India’s Hospitals Are Struggling for Oxygen Supply as Pandemic Surges

Hospitals in several Indian states are struggling for medical oxygen as the country’s pandemic surges at the fastest rate in the world and manufacturers scramble to plug the gaps in the supply and transportation.

Most plants producing medical oxygen are concentrated in eastern and western India, leaving large areas of the densely populated north and center without quick access to the essential medical supply. The capital, New Delhi, and the states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, with a combined population of some 200 million -- nearly as many people as Brazil -- don’t have a single unit manufacturing oxygen.

In March, when India had some 1,300 confirmed coronavirus infections, the country was using around 750 tons of oxygen a day, said Saket Tiku, president of All India Industrial Gases Manufacturer’s Association.

“Now in September it has gone up to 2,800 tons per day,” Tiku said. “It has put a lot of stress on our supply chain logistics.”

Apart from the pressure to produce more medical grade oxygen, manufacturers are dealing with a limited number of mobile cryogenic tankers, Tiku added. While the country is managing so far, “going forward we need to be careful and very, very sensitive to oxygen use,” he said

With more than six million reported infections, India is now one of the world’s main virus hotspots. The results of India’s second nationwide serological survey, conducted between Aug. 17 and Sept. 22, showed that one in 15 people in the country had been exposed to Covid-19 and the prevalence of infections rose to 6.6% from 0.73% in the first survey done in May, said Balram Bhargava, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The country imposed a strict, six-week lockdown in March and April to flatten the curve and build capacity for growing infections. But as the outbreak keeps surging, its public hospital system -- woefully inadequate even before Covid-19 struck -- has struggled to keep up.

That it’s now experiencing oxygen shortages comes as a surprise to experts like Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of the New Delhi and Washington D.C.-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy.

“We had many months to prepare,” Laxminarayan said. “The hope would have been that this calculation would have been done, because the oxygen was at the very top of the list of things critical to controlling a pandemic.”

Stalled Supplies

The administration of Narendra Modi was forced to step in earlier this month, with the federal health ministry asking states to ensure there were no restrictions on the movement of tankers carrying medical oxygen.

Earlier hospitals had supplies for six days, now they are only able to maintain four days of stock, said Tiku. “It creates a panicky situation if your oxygen is about to get over and your stock hasn’t reached you.”

Amit Thadhani, a surgeon at Niramaya hospital in Mumbai experienced this panic first hand. For a week earlier this month oxygen supplies at his hospital -- with 55 beds and 10 intensive care spots earmarked for Covid-19 patients -- went cold.

“We had to shift two patients because we were running dangerously low,” Thadhani said.

The hospital was considering shifting more critical, oxygen-dependent patients when supplies stabilized but at much higher costs. From about 350-400 rupees per cylinder, it is now 650-700 rupees a cylinder.

Shares of Linde India Ltd., the country’s biggest manufacturer and distributor of industrial gases, including oxygen, have surged about 50% since March, the start of India’s pandemic.

“Sudden surge of medical oxygen in the last couple of weeks is impacting availability of industrial oxygen in some states,” the Kolkata-based unit of Linde Plc said in a presentation made to shareholders on Sept. 18.

Coronavirus patients who require hospitalization experience a dip in blood oxygen levels, making medical oxygen crucial for treatment. Each critically ill patient can need up to 10 jumbo cylinders a day, Thadhani said.

Soaring Prices

Those needing oxygen increased sharply over the past weeks with more people coming in with severe illness, Thadhani said, partly because doctors from rural hospitals without adequate facilities are sending patients to bigger cities.

“We had a chat with manufacturers association also,” Thadani said. “They are saying as of now we have enough to manage but we need to use judiciously so that the situation doesn’t go out of control. The fact is supplies were not forthcoming for many days.”

Several states including Maharashtra, home to the financial capital Mumbai, have issued advisories to hospitals to use their oxygen supplies with care.

Meanwhile, its price has also soared despite a government cap on the cost of cylinders. While most large public hospitals have annual contracts with oxygen manufacturers, the price hike has hit smaller hospitals that don’t have existing tie-ups.

“This is unprecedented -- there’s nothing absolutely in the last so many decades which comes close to this,” said Thadani.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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