SII’s Adar Poonawalla estimates two more months of COVID-19 vaccine shortage in India — and the blame game is heating up

SII’s Adar Poonawalla estimates two more months of COVID-19 vaccine shortage in India — and the blame game is heating up
Serum Institute of India chief executive Adar Poonawalla (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right)IANS/BCCL/BI India
  • Adar Poonwalla, CEO of the biggest vaccine manufacturing company in the world — Serum Institute of India (SII) — believes India’s COVID-19 vaccine supply crunch will last at least another two months.
  • He claims that he is getting blamed for the shortage even though the impetus to be prepared for the second of COVID-19 infections is on the government.
  • This comes at a time when India’s daily increase in new cases of COVID-19 continues to remain above 300,000 per day and the vaccination drive is now open to nearly a billion people.
Not only has the number of COVID-19 cases surging in the world’s second most populous country but there aren’t enough vaccines to go around, to keep the infection at bay. Not only are an estimated one billion people waiting for the vaccine in India, but the supply shortage is also unlikely to be resolved, any time soon.

Chief executive of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturing company, Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Adar Poonawalla, told the Financial Times (FT) that the severe vaccine shortage is likely to continue until the company can increase production. And it needs time at least till July to go from its current 60 to 70 million doses to 100 million doses a month.

And even that may fall short of India’s total requirement since it has now opened up its vaccination drive to everyone above the age of 18 years — that’s an addition of 600 million people to the 400 million who were already eligible before May 1. As of May 3, only 154 million people have received the vaccine. Of that, only 27.5 million have gotten the second dose.

SII’s Adar Poonawalla estimates two more months of COVID-19 vaccine shortage in India — and the blame game is heating up
Local people waiting for vaccination as they break social distance rules at the NMC Gandhinagar Vaccine center at Nagpur, MaharashtraBCCL

That’s two more months of people lining up in queues outside vaccine centres, where social distancing is difficult to maintain, increasing the likelihood of them catching the disease while not even getting the dose because stocks ran out.

Many are questioning why the Modi administration chose to increase the demand for vaccines at a time when supply was already insufficient and ramping up production would take time. Others are maligning vaccine manufacturers, like Poonawalla, for creating a ‘seller’s market’ for the vaccine.

Who’s to blame for the vaccine supply crunch?

SII is in charge of manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in India under the name Covishield. The government placed an order of 21 million vaccines at the end of February without any indication that more will be needed. In March, it asked for another 110 million doses as the number of cases in India started to surge.

“I’ve been victimised very unfairly and wrongly… there were no orders, we did not think we needed to make more than one billion doses a year.”

Adar Poonawalla told the Financial Times

According to Poonawalla, the impetus is on the government to prepare for such a crisis, not the company. “Everybody really felt that India had started to turn the tide on the pandemic,” he told FT. He said he is the one getting death threats from politicians and the common man alike.

In another interview with the Times of London, Poonawalla claims he chose to stay back in London for a few extra days because the situation back at home was getting worse. “Just because you can’t supply the needs of X, Y or Z, you really want to guess what they are going to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, experts believe that the disregard for COVID-19 appropriate behaviour at the massive Kumbh Mela, which was attended by 3.5 million people, and the huge political rallies in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala should have been addressed better by the government.

SII’s Adar Poonawalla estimates two more months of COVID-19 vaccine shortage in India — and the blame game is heating up
Massive crowd gathered in Kolkata to hear Narendra Modi addressing a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in AprilBCCL

India also authorised the production of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in India and said it would do the same for vaccines approved by the UK, US, Europe, and Japan.

However, local manufacturers who have partnered to produce the Russian vaccine say it will be months before they’re in a place to actually start rolling Sputnik V off the lines. One of the reasons being how fast the technology transfer — the instructions on how to actually make the vaccine — occurs.

India pumped up demand when there was already a vaccine shortage

Registrations for the vaccine opened up to those between the ages of 18 to 45 years on April 28. After an initial delay from midnight to 4:00 pm, the CoWIN servers — one of the portals used for vaccine registrations — crashed due to the sheer number of people logging in.

The few lucky individuals who were able to get past the hurdle of registering themselves found only disappointment on the other side, as actual appointments were still restricted to those above the age of 45 years.

Over the course of the next three days, many states put their hands up to say that they will be unable to open up slots for those between 18 to 45 years due to the shortage of vaccines — priority will be given to those waiting for their second dose.

On Saturday, May 1, India crossed the threshold of 400,000 new cases of COVID-19 within a span of 24 hours. That was, ironically, the same day that India kicked off its vaccination drive for people between the ages of 18 to 45 years old.

Despite the assumption that India was out of the woods when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic back in January, the second wave of infections is now hitting India harder than any other.

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