NEW DELHI - Japan's Covid-19 vaccination programme, which began on Feb 17, has been beset by an unlikely problem - a shortage of syringes.
This supply crunch was in fact anticipated by the Japanese authorities last year, prompting a global hunt by firms to shore up domestic supplies.
The search narrowed in October to an Indian firm - Hindustan Syringes & Medical Devices (HMD), one of the world's top manufacturers of disposable syringes.
Frenetic negotiations ensued and the Japanese representatives placed an order for 15 million disposable syringes in January this year.
"Within one month of the receipt of order, we began shipping out the goods," the firm's director, Mr Rajiv Nath, told The Straits Times. "The challenge was that they needed it very fast and needed them to be ready for use in March."
While the syringes were initially shipped, the tail end of the order was air-freighted to ensure that the entire consignment arrived in time to allow for necessary quality checks and be readied for use.
More order queries from Japan have poured in since and are expected to be finalised in a month's time.
As countries across the world ramp up vaccination programmes, syringes have emerged as a key procurement priority along with vaccines.
Supply crises, aggravated by the need for specific kinds of syringes, have been reported not just in Japan but several others, including Brazil, the United States and certain European countries. It is estimated the world needs more than eight billion syringes for Covid-19 vaccinations.
Amid this global scramble for syringes, HMD - which until the pandemic manufactured more than 2.5 billion syringes of different varieties annually in its factories in Faridabad, near Delhi - has emerged as a key supplier.
One of the top two global manufacturers of auto-disable (AD) syringes, its manufacturing units today produce more than 375,000 syringes per hour.
The firm has ramped up production of its 0.5 ml AD syringes - one of its key products used widely for vaccination - from 560 million pieces annually in June last year to 800 million.
As more international buyers queue up, there are plans to further increase production for this segment to one billion by June and then to 1.2 billion by September this year.
The disposable syringe manufacturing business is complex as countries require syringes with different safety features.
While the US and the European Union need them to be specially designed to prevent needle injuries, a majority of developing countries need syringes with an AD mechanism to avoid reuse.
HMD's AD syringes are equipped with a lock-and-break mechanism that locks the plunger after use and breaks it if someone attempts to pull it out.
In February, the Pan American Health Organisation placed an order of 79 million standard disposable syringes with HMD to help Brazil cope with its shortage. The firm also supplied 140 million AD syringes last year through Unicef to the Covax Facility, a global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.
It is currently in talks with the United Nations agency to supply an additional 250 million AD syringes to Covax. Besides India, where it will supply 440 million AD syringes by September, other countries getting HMD syringes during the pandemic include Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Increasing production amid the pandemic came with its own set of challenges.
Not only was it difficult to procure specialised manufacturing equipment necessary to produce syringes, the firm had to hire new staff to replace around 1,000 employees it lost last year as workers returned to their villages during the lockdown.
HMD now plans to recruit more people to further increase its production.
Mr Nath also expects to start manufacturing syringes for the US and the EU region from the next quarter.
It is a move that was initiated around August last year when the firm's management foresaw a potential business opportunity in the global rush.
"We get 30 to 40 order queries daily (including many from the US and Europe) that we need to respectfully decline," he said, citing current capacity constraints.
Vaccine vial manufacturers have also had to ramp up production to meet demand.
Schott Kaisha, a key producer of vials with manufacturing units in Gujarat and Nani Daman in western India, has responded to the growing demand for its products. Before the pandemic hit, it produced 1.2 billion vials annually.
Anticipating a rise in demand, it announced plans in November to augment its capacity by 300 million pieces - a goal it hopes to achieve by the end of this year. It then announced a further increase of 100 million pieces by early 2022.
The firm is a key supplier to the Serum Institute of India (SII), which has been producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. It also supplies vials to nine other vaccine manufacturers in India and abroad, including in Russia, the US, Britain and EU.
Since around mid-last year, it has received orders for 228 million vials from these manufacturers.
Mr Rishad Dadachanji, the firm's director, told The Straits Times he does not anticipate a supply crunch with the 400 million additional capacity that has been initiated.
"We are prepared to even further increase this if and when it is really necessary," he added.