India’s vaccine shortage will last months, biggest manufacturer warns

The chief executive of India’s Serum Institute, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, has warned that shortages of jabs will persist for months after Narendra Modi’s government failed to prepare for a devastating second coronavirus wave.

Adar Poonawalla told the Financial Times that India’s severe vaccine shortage would continue through July, when production is expected to increase from about 60m-70m doses a month to 100m.

Poonawalla said that the authorities did not expect to confront a second wave back in January when new coronavirus cases had declined. “Everybody really felt that India had started to turn the tide on the pandemic,” he said.

But India has been pummeled by the latest wave of infections, reporting a record 400,000 new cases on Sunday and multiple cities and states are under lockdown, including the capital New Delhi.

Prime Minister Modi has been accused of complacency and prioritising domestic politics over the health crisis after permitting mass election rallies and the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival that attracts millions of people, despite infections rising sharply.

India has vaccinated less than 2 per cent of its population, with many states reporting that they are out of jabs, forcing them to push back plans on Saturday to widen the inoculation campaign to everyone aged 18 or older.

Poonawalla said the Serum Institute had been maligned by politicians and critics over the vaccine shortages, pointing out that the government, not the company, was responsible for policy. The company has also been denounced for charging state governments and hospitals higher prices than it offered to the central government. Poonawalla lowered the prices following the criticism.

“I’ve been victimised very unfairly and wrongly,” he said, adding that he had not boosted capacity earlier because “there were no orders, we did not think we needed to make more than 1bn doses a year”.

New Delhi ordered 21m vaccines from the Serum Institute, which is making the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and will supply the vast majority of the country’s doses, by the end of February but gave no indication of when it would buy more. An additional 110m doses were ordered in March when infections started to climb steeply.

Adar Poonawalla: ‘I’ve been victimised very unfairly and wrongly’ © Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

The government last month advanced a loan to the company to help it convert a production line to make more vaccines.

“We have just done this right now to address the ridiculous shortage that the nation, and obviously now the world even, has,” said Poonawalla.

The government in April also launched a push to secure more jabs from overseas suppliers. It granted emergency approval to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and said it would do the same for those approved in the US, UK, Europe or Japan.

However, local manufacturers that have partnered with Sputnik V say they are months away from distributing it domestically.

Experts say the government should have invested in manufacturing capacity and procure enough vaccines earlier in the pandemic.

“It is absolutely essential that you need to have something to deliver, it’s common sense,” said Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi-based public health expert, adding that the government has not been transparent on its vaccine policy.

“Definitely there is not much information in the public domain,” he said.

Poonawalla spoke to the Financial Times from London, where he joined his wife and children shortly before the UK imposed a ban on flights from India. He told the Times of London that he had left the country partly because of unspecified “threats” from unnamed senior politicians and business figures demanding access to vaccines. The Indian government last week provided Poonawalla with added security.

But he told the FT that he was not in London over safety concerns and was there for normal business, with plans to return to India in the next week. 

The Serum Institute has been sued by overseas governments for failing to deliver on commercial contracts after India froze vaccine exports in March.

Poonawalla said the company had started “refunding” governments that had placed advance orders but did not identify 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.”

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