Existing production capacity to manufacture Covishield, one of the two Covid vaccines being administered in India is “very stressed, to put it frankly”, Serum Institute of India (SII) CEO Adar Poonawalla told NDTV on Tuesday evening.
Mr Poonawalla said the SII – which produces between 60 and 65 million doses per month presently, has so far given around 100 million doses to the center and exported 60 million – but is “still short of being able to supply to every Indian” who needs the vaccine.
“The globe needs this vaccine … we are prioritizing the needs of India (but) we are still short of being able to supply to every Indian,” Mr Poonawalla said.
He said SII needed Rs 3,000 crore – a shortfall linked to the deal with the government to sell a dose at a heavy discount – in order to ramp up capacity needed to scale up production by June.
“We’re comparing in India at approximately Rs 150-160. The average price is around $ 20 (Rs 1,500) … (but) because of the Modi government’s request, we are providing at subsidized rates … It is not that we’re not making profits … but we are not making super profits, which is key to re-investing, “he said.
“This (the amount needed) would be roughly Rs 3,000 crores. The process takes 85 days, so it would be just under three months before we scale up operations,” he said, adding that he had written to the center on this subject, failing which SII would approach the banks for a loan.
Mr Poonawalla said that even if SII could increase its capacity – to around 100 million doses per month – India needed other manufacturers to also scale up in order to meet requirements.
He also said export bans – last month the center said it was pausing major Covishield shipments – and the ‘first claim’ deal with India were difficult to explain abroad, where it is sold at a substantially higher cost per dose.
Last week the center said there was no outright ban on the export of vaccines.
The SII chief also said he was working towards making Russia’s Sputnik-V, which is expected to get permission for use in India any day. He also said that Codagenix would enter trials soon.
“Codagenix is going to be a single-dose nasal vaccine that is a potential gamechanger … will take time to develop .. we have to make sure the delivery mechanism delivers just the right amount of vaccine around the mucosa to prevent the virus from entering the system, “Mr Poonawalla explained.
“We’re hoping it becomes super convenient to administer and also cuts transmission when you do get infected … that’s the advantage of the nasal vaccine,” he said.
The introduction of multiple vaccines in India will help speed up vaccination – a critical point given the renewed spread of the virus and calls to widen the vaccine net.
India has administered around 8.3 crore vaccine doses since the drive began on January 16.
The center has said the pace of the rollout is second only to the United States – 79.11 million has been vaccinated in 79 days (as on April 4) compared to 165.05 million in 112 days by the US.
However, the alarming rate at which new cases are being reported every day means the vaccination effort has to be significantly faster to stop the virus from spreading.
The Chief Ministers of Delhi, Maharashtra and Punjab, as well as the Indian Medical Association, have all asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to allow more people to be vaccinated.
At present, only those over 45, and healthcare and frontline workers, are eligible to get the shot.
The center today rejected calls to allow more people to get vaccinated, saying the focus had to be on vaccinating those who needed it and not on those who wanted the shot.
“We have to focus on Covid-appropriate behavior and containment. When the time comes to open it to all, then we will,” Dr VK Paul, a member of government think tank NITI Aayog, said.