Libra Infusions Ltd, the largest saline manufacturer in the country, has slashed its production by 75% due to what it claims is a capital shortfall, just as the demand for injectable saline has surged significantly following the record-smashing dengue outbreak.
According to data from the Bangladesh Competition Commission, local manufacturers can fulfil 50% of the demand in the capital and only 30% of the demand outside.
The acute supply shortage has forced people to purchase each bag of saline for as much as Tk500, despite the normal price being Tk43 in India and Tk90-100 in Bangladesh, the data shows.
To address this situation, the government has taken the initiative to import saline and instructed manufacturers to operate in three shifts.
Currently, Libra Infusion is producing only 25,000 bags daily, against its capacity of 100,000.
Company Secretary Shafiqul Islam Bhuiya told The Business Standard, "We are unable to operate at full capacity due to a lack of operating capital. Currently, we are producing saline at only 25% of our capacity as we have not secured loans from banks. Access to a bank loan would enable us to utilise our full production capacity."
A commission official said that Libra Infusions has also mentioned its inability to maintain a profit from saline.
On 10 September, the Competition Commission sat with saline manufacturers, considering it a "national crisis", when Libra Infusion was asked to explain the reason for its running at such a lower capacity.
Hafizur Rahman, a member of the commission, told TBS, "The company has been making profits for more than three decades. And at the moment of the national crisis, production has been reduced, which is not desirable at all."
He also said that the commission would be strict if necessary to deal with the situation.
During the same meeting, the Directorate General of Drug Administration reported that the saline plant of Square Pharmaceuticals is currently closed. Other manufacturers are operating in three shifts, resulting in a daily production of 1.90 lakh bags of saline in the country.
Zahangir Alam, chief financial officer of Square Pharmaceuticals, said the entire factory has been closed after a fire incident last year. No plans have been made yet on whether it will be reopened.
To keep the price and supply of saline normal, the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection has convened a view-exchange meeting with manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and related parties on Wednesday.
Businessmen in this sector say that during normal times, the demand for saline was 40-50 lakh bags per month. Now it has increased to 2.40-3 crore bags. Six companies are currently in production. Out of this, Beximco Group is producing 30,000 bags per day. Companies can supply up to 65 lakh bags per month if they run at capacity in three shifts.
Khairul Bashar, assistant vice president of Orion Infusion, told TBS, "Orion Infusion is now producing saline in three shifts, including holidays. Out of the 25,000 bags manufactured daily, 10,000 bags are being supplied to government hospitals, while the remainder is supplied to the market."
The companies say that the price of saline is fixed by the government. As a result, due to inflation or the dollar crisis, companies are able to increase the price of various drugs, but they cannot do it in the case of saline. As a result, companies are not interested in increasing investment and production here. After 2015, pharmaceutical companies did not invest in saline production.
This year, the number of dengue cases and deaths has surpassed any previous record. Due to the increase in dengue patients, the demand for injectable saline has increased several times compared to normal times. At present, the shortage of saline in government hospitals is somewhat reduced, but the shortage in private hospitals and pharmacies is very high.
Surgery, dialysis, and other patients are also facing problems due to the saline shortage. Their relatives are forced to buy saline at three to four times the price.
In that meeting, the Competition Commission cautioned everyone against creating an artificial crisis.
Dr MH Lelin Chowdhury, chairman of Health and Hope Hospital, told TBS, "Now the shortage of saline is acute. If we order 100 bags of saline from a company, we get just 10 or 20. The highest price was Tk90-95, but now we are buying that saline at Tk200 per bag."
Even the relatives of patients have to get back empty-handed from pharmacies in the capital.
Abdul Faisal, a shopkeeper at the Medicare Pharmacy in Eskaton, told TBS, The salinity crisis is acute now. We get 20 bags of saline twice a week, but the demand is much higher than that. Every day, some customers go back without getting saline."
In an event in the capital on Tuesday, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said there is no shortage of saline in hospitals. There is a shortage of saline on the market.
"Seven lakh bags of saline are being imported for this. Soon, 3.5 lakh bags of saline will arrive in the country," he added.