The central government has signed a contract with Serum Institute of India (SII) for the supply of 11 million doses of Covishield, the Indian variant of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the novel coronavirus, the Pune-based firm said on Monday.
Doses of the vaccine could start shipping as early as Monday night, a source with direct knowledge of the development told The Indian Express.
“(SII) may start dispatching the vaccines very soon. It may happen either later tonight or early morning tomorrow,” the source told The Indian Express on Monday evening. The doses will be sent by multiple modes of transport, including by road and air, the source said.
In Pune, SII officials said the consignments would be flown to the nearest airport and then driven to the depots. Some 60 locations, including in Maharashtra and Gujarat, and Chennai, are mentioned in the consignee list, the SII officials said.
SII has manufactured the vaccine under licence in India. The country will start its mass inoculation programme against Covid-19 on January 16. Around 3 crore healthcare and frontline workers will be the first in line to receive the shot.
At least 70 lakh healthcare workers will be administered the vaccine over the next three months, NITI Aayog Member-Health and chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC), Dr V K Paul, said.
Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman of the Poonawalla Group of which SII is part, confirmed that a deal had been signed with the government. “We are expecting a bigger order next week,” he told The Indian Express on Monday evening.
SII and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech received the Drug Controller General of India’s approval on January 3 for “restricted” use of their Covid-19 vaccines in an “emergency” situation. Following the approvals, SII CEO Adar Poonawalla had announced that SII would offer the government a “special” price of Rs 200 per dose for the first 100 million doses of Covishield.
Asked whether the price still remained Rs 200, Dr Cyrus Poonawalla told The Indian Express on Monday, “Yes”. SII officials said this was the rate at which the government would buy the vaccines from SII.
The government is learnt to have also finalised a contract with Bharat Biotech for its Covaxin vaccine. No confirmation was, however, available from either Bharat Biotech chairman and managing director Dr Krishna Ella, or the union Health Ministry.
There was also no confirmation from the government on the size and nature of the deal with either SII or Bharat Biotech.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, SII has manufactured and stockpiled around 40 million doses of Covishield “at risk”, while Bharat Biotech has made around 10 million doses of Covaxin.
While the Hyderabad firm also has an agreement to further develop and receive approval for Covaxin in the United States, SII has commitments to some low- and middle-income countries as well as the COVAX facility led by Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance.
SII had announced last year that it had received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to supply around 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines in the first half of 2021. This includes doses of both Covishield and another Covid-19 vaccine that it is manufacturing for US-based Novavax.
Dr Cyrus Poonawalla on Monday said SII had a huge stock of vaccines, and appealed for a simultaneous rollout for the private sector and the vulnerable group of elderly people.
“Why should the private market and vulnerable groups, mainly elderly people, be deprived until the government starts distributing in their priority areas?” Dr Poonawalla said.