US Leverages India’s Covid-19 Vaccine Production Skills to Inoculate Indo-Pacific

PUNE, India – As much of the world struggled to secure supplies of the Covid-19 vaccine last month, more than 50 million doses were cooling in a warehouse in western India, stacked more than 50 feet from height.

The company with the reservation, Serum Institute of India, used to be little known outside of the vaccine industry, but its ability to increase production to more than 70 million doses per month has now placed it and India solidly in the lead. center stage in the fight against the pandemic.

The United States, Japan and Australia have just committed more than $ 200 million to help Indian companies expand their capabilities more quickly and add 1 billion doses to the global supply. Harnessing India’s vaccine production capabilities was at the center of virtual talks on Friday between the leaders of those three countries and India, an alliance trying to counter Chinese expansionism known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad.

China and Russia have been supplying domestically produced vaccines to much of the developing world, while the United States has so far focused much of its efforts on securing supplies for Americans.

“We are talking about huge investments in the creation of additional vaccine capacities in India, to export them to countries in the Indo-Pacific region for their improvement,” said Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla in a session. briefing after the Quad summit on Friday. “We are talking about really immunizing people in an entire region.”

Final details and scope of the Quad vaccine program are still being worked out, an Indian official said. It will begin by financing an expansion of production capacity at an Indian company, Biological E Ltd., to produce 1 billion Johnson & Johnson doses.‘s

vaccine. Later, authorities could consider including support for the production of a vaccine by Novavax by the Serum Institute. Inc.,

the official said.

The program will attempt to replicate the success that the Serum Institute has had in increasing production. Initially, the Serum Institute had contracted with AstraZeneca PLC to supply vaccines only to countries in the developing world, but was able to increase production capacity so quickly that it is now filling orders in the West as well. Earlier this month, it shipped five million doses to the UK, home to the University of Oxford, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine.

India has been the world’s largest vaccine producer for years. It produces more than half the volume of the world’s vaccines and has specialized in manufacturing large batches of vaccines for emerging markets, which require each injection to cost less than a few dollars.

As the mass production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines has proven difficult, more countries and vaccine producers have turned to India for help.

Officials unloaded boxes containing vials of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India, in Ahmedabad, India, in January.


amit dave / Reuters

“I think a lot of people don’t understand why they can’t get vaccines, why it’s so difficult to just get supplies,” said Serum Institute Executive Director Adar Poonawalla. “People underestimate manufacturing at scale; sometimes it is actually more difficult to scale-up than even to develop or invent a vaccine. “

Earlier this year, the manufacturers of vaccines approved for use in the EU: Pfizer Inc.

and BioNTech SE,

Modern Inc.

and AstraZeneca PLC: reduce deliveries due to bottlenecks in manufacturing. China and Russia have also had problems with vaccine production.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office outlined what is getting in the way of producing more vaccines in a report last month, saying that the construction of new facilities, delays in the delivery of equipment and other supplies, and the Lack of experienced managers have influenced the expansion of manufacturing capacity.

“Vaccine manufacturing is very complex and will generally increase at a gradual rate, rather than start on a large scale,” the report said.

The Serum Institute could move faster than most because it already had more capacity than any manufacturer, much of which it could reuse to produce Covid-19 vaccines. Its sprawling facility in the western Indian city of Pune, about 160 miles southeast of Mumbai, is crammed with trucks picking up pallets of vaccines and dropping off the supplies needed to manufacture, package and deliver them – millions of vials, caps , Ice bags. and refrigerators.

New Delhi has posted an official here to track the destination of the vaccines. The company has added hundreds of employees to boost production, including 50 commandos to protect facilities.

Before the pandemic, the Serum Institute already produced around 1.5 billion doses of vaccines per year. It has been the go-to provider for international organizations like UNICEF and emerging markets because it sells most vaccines for less than $ 1 a dose. It does, and still makes a profit, by churning out batches of millions of doses at a time. Over the decades that he has been doing this, he has developed special skills, equipment and analysis that few can match.

As soon as their first vial of the cellular material used to create the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in May, scientists at the Serum Institute began growing it in sufficient quantities to fill large containers, some holding 2,000 liters or nearly 530 gallons.

Over time, his scientists figured out how to make the doses go faster, modifying the process to get more out of each batch. The secret, say the Serum scientists, is knowing how to grow large numbers of cells in larger bioreactors, the large metal vats used to grow cells to make vaccines. It is also knowing the right time to introduce the virus into cells, as well as the time to harvest that virus, which becomes the basis for vaccines.

It took months to understand how best to mass-produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, said Umesh Shaligram, Serum’s CEO. “You have to understand, in a way to feel, how your cells behave, how a virus behaves. It takes a little time to understand, ”he said. “Every batch you run, you understand better.”

The elderly waited to receive their Covid-19 injections in Mumbai on Friday.


divyakant solanki / Shutterstock

By December, it was producing 30 million doses a month. This month it is producing more than 70 million doses and expects to reach 100 million in the next month or two.

“What we are doing now on a monthly basis is what most companies do on a yearly basis,” said Mr. Poonawalla. “We worked very hard to readjust all these facilities and get equipment in record time to do so.”

The Serum Institute is now trying to repeat the rapid rollout, this time by developing the capacity to produce one billion doses of a Covid-19 vaccine from Novavax, which was recently shown to be 89.3% effective in protecting people from the disease. . In a separate facility in a new building, six 4,000-liter steel vats, imported earlier this year, were being installed and tested.

The success has brought a new kind of headache, as Serum has had to try to circumvent a backlash against its ads. When it began exporting tens of millions of doses around the world, some wondered why the doses were not being saved for the Indians. When deliveries to the first countries were announced, others asked why they were not receiving doses.

“I humbly ask you to be patient, @SerumInstIndia has been instructed to prioritize the enormous needs of India and, along with that balance, the needs of the rest of the world,” Poonawalla said. tweeted last month. “We are doing our best.”

Write to Eric Bellman at [email protected]

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