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Serum Institute has enough vaccine-making capacity for now, hopes bottlenecks get cleared

SII is producing the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University under its own brand name ‘Covishield’ and also has agreements with some other developers to produce their vaccines.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune |
Updated: March 9, 2021 11:43:33 am
The Serum Institute of India in Pune. (Express photo: Ashish Kale)

While Serum Institute of India (SII) has acknowledged that “bottlenecks” exist in supplies of some raw materials used in the manufacture of the Covid-19 vaccine, people familiar with the situation at the company said it was unlikely to have any impact on the production of the vaccine in the immediate future.

SII, a key global player in production of Covid-19 vaccines, has enough supplies to continue manufacturing at current capacities for now, they said. “We are hoping that these bottlenecks would be sorted out soon,” one of them told The Indian Express.

SII is producing the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University under its own brand name ‘Covishield’ and also has agreements with some other developers to produce their vaccines.

Recently, the company’s CEO Adar Poonawalla had admitted that restrictions on exports of certain items in the United States was a “serious limiting factor” in scaling up production of Covid-19 vaccines.

“I have been focussing on supplies of vaccine doses via the Covax facility. I do not want to get into technical issues, but for free global access to vaccines, if we can’t get the raw materials out of the United States, that’s going to be a serious limiting factor. We have stockpiled many doses but there are several constraints like (availability of) bags, filters and other critical items that manufacturers need,” Poonawalla had said at an online discussion.

The Covax facility he mentioned was a reference to a global platform, backed by the World Health Organisation and some other international agencies, to make Covid-19 vaccines available to all the countries in adequate quantities and affordable price.

“Serum is a philanthropic organisation and, at the start of the pandemic, had decided to take huge risks and buy equipment at rapid speed. We knew we had to produce hundreds of billions of doses. In January this year, after the Covishield vaccine received emergency use authorisation, we were able to ship 90 million doses to 51 countries, including India, in a matter of less than two months,” he said.

But the company is not producing the vaccine doses at its full capacity. Those in the know told The Indian Express that the company could produce many more than the 50 million doses a month that it is doing right now. The company has, in the past, said it was planning to scale its production to 100 million doses to enable faster distribution of the vaccines around the world.

“The production capacities cannot be scaled up in the absence of smooth access to all the raw materials,” the person quoted above said.

Most of these raw materials are procured from the US, Australia or New Zealand. While there have not been any problems in the supplies from Australia and New Zealand, the US has used some emergency legal provisions to curb the export of these items.

Vaccine scientist Dr Gagandeep Kang, the vice-chair of Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which is one of the partner organisations in the Covax facility, said such restrictions could amplify the inequalities in access to Covid-19 vaccines.

“Whether it is vials, or filters, restrictions on global supplies of these items, prompted by vaccine nationalism can have knock-on effects on the accessibility of vaccines to vulnerable populations, and would lead to greater inequalities,” she said.

The WHO and Covax are presently engaged in a meeting with partners from the industry to identify bottlenecks in production and discuss how to solve them.

A two-day meeting led by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), CEPI, WHO and multiple vaccine manufacturing stakeholders is underway and will conclude on March 9. “The discussion centres on identifying and solving the issues the world is facing on vaccine supply from the constituent parts to the end product,” WHO officials told The Indian Express.

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