India to get 100mn Oxford vaccine shots by December: Serum Institute

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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The world’s largest vaccine producer, Serum Institute of India, is ramping up production of the COVID-19 shot from Oxford-AstraZeneca, hoping to have 100 million doses ready by December for an immunization drive that could launch the same month across India.

According to Adar Poonawalla, Chief Executive Officer of the family-owned company, if final-stage test data indicate that Oxford-AstraZeneca’s candidate provides effective protection against the virus, the Serum Institute, which has partnered to manufacture at least one billion doses, may obtain emergency authorization by December.

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The initial amount will go to India, Mr. Poonawalla said in an interview. A complete approval early in the next year would allow the South Asian nation and COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed entity that buys shots for poor nations, to distribute the vaccine on a 50-50 basis. In the past two months, Serum Institute, which has teamed up with five vaccine manufacturers, has so far developed 40 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and plans to soon begin producing US-based Novavax’s vaccine.

“We were a bit concerned it was a big risk,” Mr. Poonawalla. But both AstraZeneca and Novavax’s shots “are looking pretty good,” he added.

The best hope for adequate COVID-19 vaccine comes from India as it is the largest vaccine producer in the world.

The haste underlines Mr. Poonawalla’s confidence in one of the key front-runners of the vaccine. AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said he is planning for the prospect of large-scale vaccinations as early as December and once the UK grants its own emergency license, Serum Institute will provide Indian counterparts with the same data.

Long way ahead

Drugmakers are just now getting data that will demonstrate how well their vaccine candidates perform, but as the global race to find an effective shot against the pathogen approaches its final stages, there are plenty of obstacles ahead.

AstraZeneca and Oxford University still need to see the results of the testing. And even if their vaccine is effective and gets a nod from regulators, there are concerns about how the shot can be administered safely and quickly.

Mr. Poonawalla reiterated that, owing to affordability and manufacturing challenges, it would take until 2024 to vaccinate the entire world and two years to see a significant reduction in infections.

He said that after talks with the Indian government he is confident in their plans to provide the vulnerable and frontline staff with initial vaccines. The challenge will be to get it to the 1.3 billion population of India, especially in the vast countryside where previous vaccination drives have failed because of patchy health networks.

Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine advantage

He said AstraZeneca has a major advantage over a competing candidate from Pfizer and BioNTech who, after claiming that it was more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infections, captured headlines this week.

To transport and store the vaccine at -70 degrees Celsius, expensive cold-chain infrastructure is required. Mr. Poonawalla said this was “just impossible” for most of the countries compared to those that his company would make and can be stored at fridge temperatures.

“I don’t think even 90% of the countries will be able to take it, because you just don’t have deep freezers everywhere,” he said of the Pfizer shot. “In a pandemic, always remember that simplicity is the key.”

For India, which has struggled to control the second-largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world, vaccine pricing negotiations with the Serum Institute would be crucial to the country’s efforts to recover from the pandemic.

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