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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 the severe vaccine shortage would continue through July, when output is expected to increase from about 60m-70m a month to 100m.
“It is a very sad situation in India and very frustrating,” said Poonawalla, whose company is making the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and has been charged with supplying the vast majority of the country’s doses.
“We only have one manufacturer who is actually making 90 per cent of the Indian requirement right now, which is Serum Institute, and obviously that’s not going to be enough,” he added.
India has vaccinated less than 2 per cent of its population, with many states reporting that they are out of doses, forcing them to push back plans on Saturday to widen the inoculation campaign to everyone aged 18 or older.
The country reported a record 400,000 new cases on Sunday and the local government in New Delhi extended the lockdown of the capital city region as a second wave of Covid-19 devastates hospitals and causes acute shortages of essential supplies.
“This overwhelmed us and nobody could have predicted in January or February that we were going to get such a surge,” said Poonawalla. “Everybody really felt that India had started to turn the tide on the pandemic.”
He 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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
Poonawalla later wrote on Twitter that he would be returning to India in the coming days.
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.”
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.
Experts say the government also failed to invest in manufacturing capacity or procure enough vaccine doses earlier in the pandemic.
The government last month launched a push to secure more jabs from overseas suppliers to deal with the shortage. 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 rolling it out domestically. Financial Times