Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive officer of Serum Institute of India, on Tuesday said that his company’s existing capacity to manufacture coronavirus vaccine Covishield was “very stressed” and it required Rs 3,000 crore to increase production by June, NDTV reported.
In an interview to the news channel, Poonawalla said that the Serum Institute was prioritising the vaccine needs of India but was still short of being able to supply the doses to every citizen.
Poonawalla told NDTV that his company presently manufactured 60 to 65 million doses (6 crore to 6.5 crore) of the vaccine every month. He added that Serum Institute has so far exported 60 million doses of the vaccine and supplied 100 million (10 crore) to the Centre.
Poonawalla said that AstraZeneca has served a legal notice to Serum Institute for delays in supplying the vaccine. “AstraZeneca has sent us a legal notice and the Indian government is also aware of that,” he told Business Standard. “I cannot comment on the legal notice as it is confidential, but we are examining all avenues to amicably manage and resolve legal disputes over contractual obligations that Serum Institute is not able to fulfil due to its prioritisation of Indian supplies.”
The Serum Institute chief added that his company was not making “super profits” because it was supplying the vaccine at discounted rates in India.
“We’re supplying [the vaccine] in India at approximately Rs 150-160 [per dose],” he told NDTV. “The average price is around $20 [Rs 1,470 approximately], but because of the [Narendra] Modi government’s request, we are providing at subsidised rates.” The shortfall of Rs 3,000 crore has been linked to this agreement, according to NDTV.
Poonawalla added that the process to scale up vaccine production would take about three months. The Serum Institute chief said that he has written to the Centre about the shortfall.
“We have submitted a formal proposal for an upfront grant, which will enable us to put up a factory,” he told Business Standard. “The government is examining the proposal. Hopefully, in the next seven days, it will be concluded... This will be a grant, not a loan. We are only asking for the cost of the facility.” He added that if the funds come, they will be able to deliver double the quantity of vaccines within two months.
Poonawalla, however, added that even if his company began making around 100 million vaccines doses per month, India would require other manufacturers also to increase their production capacity in order to fulfil present requirements.
Poonawalla told NDTV that the Centre said last month it would pause the shipment of Covishield to other countries, and this “first claim” agreement with India was tough to explain to other countries. However, the Centre had last week denied banning the export of vaccines.
Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin are the two vaccines being used in India’s inoculation drive. Currently, only people above 45 and frontline and health workers are eligible for vaccination.
On the efficacy of Covishield, Poonawalla said if one waits for three months between two doses, the vaccine’s efficacy is 80%. “The Scottish Health website shows that even one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine is giving a very good efficacy of 94%,” he added. “This publication will go into The Lancet very soon and will be available in the next two weeks.”
The Serum Institute chief said the acid test was whether after the vaccination, one needs hospitalisation if they contract the virus.
“After over 100 million people were given the vaccine [in India and abroad], we have hardly seen any case of hospitalisation,” he told Business Standard. “If you take a rule of thumb, 8-9% people are positive when tested. Out of these people, those who are vaccinated, not one has had the need for hospitalisation. They, at best, have mild to moderate symptoms. This means we are very close to 94-100% effectiveness against hospitalisation even with one dose of Covishield.”
Poonawalla also said the Serum Institute was working towards making Russian vaccine Sputnik-V available, adding that Codagenix’ single-dose nasal vaccine would also enter trials soon.
Amid the surge in cases in India, there have been demands to make the vaccine available to all. However, the Centre on Tuesday refused to open up inoculation for all citizens, saying that the aim was to cover the people who are the most vulnerable at the earliest. “The aim is never to vaccinate whoever wants, but always on whoever needs,” Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said at a press conference.