5 dead in fire at world's biggest vaccine hub in India

Rescue workers recovered five bodies from a building that was under construction at the Serum Institute of India in Pune yesterday. The company insisted its production of drugs to fight Covid-19 was not affected.
Rescue workers recovered five bodies from a building that was under construction at the Serum Institute of India in Pune yesterday. The company insisted its production of drugs to fight Covid-19 was not affected.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MUMBAI • Five people died as a fire tore through a building in the world's biggest vaccine production hub in western India yesterday, officials said.

Pune city mayor Murlidhar Mohol confirmed the deaths following the fire at the Serum Institute of India in the city of Pune.

Rescue workers discovered five bodies in the under-construction building after the blaze was brought under control, media reports said, but the company insisted its production of drugs to counter the coronavirus pandemic was not affected.

"We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed," Mr Adar Poonawalla, the firm's CEO, tweeted.

TV channels showed thick clouds of grey smoke billowing from the sprawling site.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.

Serum Institute of India is producing millions of doses of the Covishield coronavirus vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, for India and many other countries.

"It is not going to affect production of the Covid-19 vaccine," a Serum Institute source said, adding that the blaze was at a new facility being built on the 40ha campus. The complex where the fire broke out is a few minutes' drive from the facility where coronavirus vaccines are produced, reports said.

Up to nine buildings are under construction at the complex to enhance Serum's manufacturing capability, NDTV reported.

Serum Institute - founded in 1966 by Mr Poonawalla's father Cyrus - is the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, producing 1.5 billion doses a year even before the coronavirus pandemic.

It makes vaccines against polio, hepatitis B, measles and mumps, among others, which are exported to more than 170 countries.

In January, Indian regulators approved two vaccines - Covishield, produced by the Serum Institute, and Covaxin, made by Indian firm Bharat Biotech.

India began one of the world's biggest vaccine roll-outs last Saturday, aiming to vaccinate 300 million people by July with both Covishield and Covaxin.

Many other countries are also relying on the Serum Institute to supply them with the vaccine.

India plans to offer 20 million doses of vaccines to its South Asian neighbours, with Latin America, Africa and Central Asia next in line. Serum Institute also plans to supply 200 million doses to Covax, a World Health Organisation-backed effort to procure and distribute vaccines to poor countries.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2021, with the headline '5 dead in fire at world's biggest vaccine hub in India'. Subscribe