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COVID-19 vaccine shortage in India will continue till July, says Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla

The Serum Institute has been maligned by politicians and critics over the vaccine shortages, Adar Poonawalla tells Financial Times. "I have been victimised very unfairly and wrongly."

May 03, 2021 / 03:37 PM IST
Serum Institute India (SII) CEO Adar Poonawalla (Image: Twitter/@adarpoonawalla)

Serum Institute India (SII) CEO Adar Poonawalla (Image: Twitter/@adarpoonawalla)

India's coronavirus vaccine shortage will continue through July, Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla has said, a remark that hardly offers comfort as the country's vaccination programme has been hit by low supply even as the second COVID wave shows no signs of abating.

Speaking to the London-based Financial Times, the 40-year-old Poonawalla said that the shortage would continue through July when production is expected to increase from about 60-70 million doses a month to 100 million.

The company did not boost its manufacturing capacity in advance because "there were no orders", he said. "We did not think we needed to make more than 1 billion doses a year," SII CEO added.

SII's Covishield, which is the local name for the Oxford University-AstraZaneca's jab, is the mainstay of India's vaccination programme. Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech's Covaxin is the other vaccine that is in use, while Russia-made Sputnik V, too, has been cleared but is yet to be launched.

MC Insider: Why Poonawalla left India, IPO buzz, highest paid teacher in the country, deal whispers and more


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Poonawalla said that the authorities did not expect the second wave to hit India after cases declined in January. "Everybody really felt that India had started to turn the tide on the pandemic," he was quoted as saying by FT.

Poonawalla said the Serum Institute had been maligned by politicians and critics over the shortages, the report said. It was the government, not the company, that was responsible for policy, he said.

"I have been victimised very unfairly and wrongly," Poonawalla said. This the second time in less than a week that Poonawalla, who recently arrived in London for an 'extended stay", has talked about the pressure he faced.

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In a recent interview to The Times, Poonawalla had alleged that he had been receiving threats in India and that he and his family had left the country for London after unprecedented "pressure and aggression" over the demand of COVID-19 vaccines. He has been provided with ‘Y’ category security by the home ministry.

On the question where election rallies and Kumbh added to India's COVID-19 crisis, Poonawalla decided to steer clear. "If I give you the right answer, or any answer, my head would be chopped off... I can't comment on the elections or Kumbh Mela. It's too sensitive," he said.

He told the FT that he was not in London for normal business and not over safety concerns and planned to return to India in the next week.

SII has been sued by countries for failing to deliver vaccines after India banned exports in March. Poonawalla told FT that the company had started “refunding” governments without naming the countries. “But I think if we don’t see a major shift in two, three months then I think we’re going to have some trouble,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Key Highlights of The Times interview | Adar Poonawala hits back at critics

On May 1, India expanded its COVID-19 vaccination drive to include all above 18 years of age but several states have struggled due to a shortage of jabs.

SII, the world's biggest vaccine maker, came in for criticism from some quarters for pricing the jab differently for state governments, private hospitals and the Centre. Subsequently, SII announced a price cut and now plans to sell the vaccine at Rs 300 per dose to states instead of Rs 400.

Read | Covishield production in full swing: Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla

In a recent tweet, Poonawalla said the production of Covishield was in full swing at SII's facility in Pune. "Pleased to state that COVISHIELD's production is in full swing in Pune. I look forward to reviewing operations upon my return in a few days," Poonawalla said.

Further, endorsing a statement issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on May 3, Serum Institute tweeted that the company has been working closely with the Government of India for the past year and thanked it for its support. "We remain committed to ramping up our vaccine production to save every life we can," it said.

The government issued a clarification after some media reports alleged that "Centre has not placed any fresh order for COVID-19 vaccines."

Click here for Moneycontrol's full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic

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