India probes deadly blaze at coronavirus vaccine production site

Smoke rises from the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine maker that is manufacturing the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine for the coronavirus, in Pune, India, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. AP - Rafiq Maqbool

Five people have died in an inferno at the site of the world’s largest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India, in the western Maharashtra state, where it is manufacturing the AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine.

Officials said production and stocks of COVID-19 shots were not affected, as police launched an investigation amid suspicions of arson.

Thick smoke bellowed after one of the several buildings under construction which went up in flames at the Serum Institute of India’s privately-owned facility in Pune city Thursday afternoon.

City officials said they believed sparks from construction work seemed to trigger off the blaze and five workers trapped on the fifth floor of the building on fire were rescued but they died of their fatal burn injuries.

Local residents said they saw the fire raging for several hours before fire fighters could control the blaze.

“We couldn’t see the fire at first but suddenly black smoke darkened the skyline,” another city resident told TV crews at the site.

The police launched an investigation in the 100-acre complex and the Indian Express newspaper said suspicions of “deliberate act of sabotage” was not being ruled out.

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“After every such major incident of fire, an investigation is conducted. It will happen in this case too,” Pune’s deputy police commissioner Namrata Patil added.

Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine-maker by volume, has been producing the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.

The shots are called Covishield locally and they form the backbone of India’s drive to inoculate 300 million health and frontline workers in the first phase of the world’s largest vaccination campaign launched last week.

Fire-scarred Indian firm holds out hope
Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawala said the fire would not impact production of the vaccines.

“This was a brand new facility. It was for the future production of BCG and Rotavirus. No actual vaccine was actually being produced there, so there was no damage to any vaccine,” Poonawalla told a news conference.

“Where Covishield is manufactured and stored, no damage was done to that,” the chief executive added and expressed shock at the fire.

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Serum Institute put the loss from the fire at more than 112 million Euros.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian President Ram Nath Kovind offered their condolences to the bereaved families of the five dead workers.

Gift and exports on schedule

AstraZeneca vaccines made at the Pune facility have already reached Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives while Myanmar was next in line to receive the free shipments from India.

Many other developing nations were pinning their hopes on Covishield’s production by Serum Institute, which had begun stockpiling shots much before India approved their emergency use.

India has also cleared commercial export of two million doses of the vaccines for Brazil.

The consignment was set to reach its destination later on Friday to give a much-needed boost the country’s immunisation.

Saudi Arabia, Morocco and South Africa and will also receive the Indian shot in line with similar arrangements despite some controversy over cost.

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