COVID vaccination suffers in poorer nations as Serum faces production roadblocks

Serum Institute of India is the biggest supplier to Covax which in turn ensures supply of doses to poorer countries; but an export ban by the Indian government and a factory fire among others has caused the firm to manufacture fewer doses than promised  

Adar Poonawalla-Covid vaccines lethargy
When people take a few shots every year, they may take anti-coronavirus vaccines and other shots together, Adar Poonawalla said | File Photo

Several countries including poorer nations with COVID-19 hotspots are struggling to vaccinate their populations, largely due to the inability of Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker to supply the promised doses to Covax.

According to Bloomberg, Covax, the World Health Organisation-backed initiative to ensure vaccines equity across the world, has only received 30 million of the 200 million doses it ordered from SII for supply to at least 92 countries. However, the report attributes SII’s delay in sending the promised jabs to a ban on export of vaccine by the Indian government, roadblocks in procuring raw materials and a factory fire among other causes.

Also read: Govt’s vaccine price list: Covishield ₹780; Covaxin ₹1,410; Sputnik ₹1,145

The gap is concerning as experts at WHO have warned that that sluggish vaccination in poorer nations could trigger the emergence of newer variants of COVID-19 and prolong the global pandemic.


Seth Berkley, the CEO at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance told Bloomberg that Serum was entrusted with supplying vaccine by the Covax due to “the company’s massive production capacity, ability to deliver at low cost and the fact that its vaccine was one of the earliest to gain WHO emergency use listing.”

Serum’s dilemma

Last year, when the world battered by the COVID-19 pandemic was eagerly waiting for a vaccine, Serum Institute of India and its CEO Adar Poonawalla shot to limelight after sealing the deal with Oxford-AstraZeneca to mass produce their vaccine. The shot was named Covishield in India.

Riding on the massive expectations from his company, Poonawalla, last year promised to manufacture around 400 million doses of the vaccine for low and middle-income countries by the end of 2020.

He, however, in January 2021 said that his company could churn out only 70 million shots due to lack of warehouse space to store the vaccines as well as the sluggish pace of regulatory approvals in India. He also flagged concerns about US policies banning export of vaccine raw materials, which in turn affected the manufacturing at SII factory.

A fire that broke out in Serum’s Pune-based plant in January also delayed the supplies, say sources. Although Poonawalla earlier tweeted that it wouldn’t affect the production, the fire did cause the company losses of equipment while interrupting the additional manufacturing lines, a source told Bloomberg.

This year, the pharma giant has been unable to export shots to any country since April due to a ban imposed by the Centre after the onset of the second wave of the pandemic.

The company has said that the exports are unlikely to resume before the end of 2021 as it has to cater to India’s vaccine demand first.

Crisis elsewhere

Countries like Nepal which had signed deals with SII are now looking for new suppliers. According to the report, the Nepal government has received only half of the 2 million shots it ordered from SII. The country has received a total of 2.38 million doses – 1 million from SII, another 1 million in grant aid from India and the rest from Covax – for its population of 28 million.

While Nepal was expecting 13 million doses from Covax, it could be impossible now as the latter itself was dependent on SII for its vaccine reserves.

Also read: Cong demands vaccination blueprint after Centre announces new policy

Even though Serum is ramping up its manufacturing capacity, it may take it a while to send the shots overseas. In the meantime, countries have to make do with other vaccines including those from Chinese vaccine makers.

Vaccines by Sinovac Biotech Ltd. And Sinopharm Group Co., recently approved for global use by WHO are being considered as alternatives to Serum’s COVID-19 vaccine. Bangladesh who halted its first vaccination doses after supply stooped coming from SII has resumed it for frontline workers after getting a limited supply of shots from Sinopharm, Bloomberg reported. The country, however, is yet to begin a mass vaccination drive.