British-Swedish multinational AstraZeneca has sent a legal notice to its partner Serum Institute of India (SII) over delays in supply of the COVID-19 vaccine Covishield.
The news emerged a day after SII chief executive Adar Poonawalla admitted in an interview to NDTV that existing production capacity to manufacture Covishield, one of the two vaccines being administered in India, is “very stressed”.
Poonawalla told NDTV that the Indian government’s decision to pause Covishield exports and the ‘first claim’ deal with India were difficult to explain abroad, where the vaccine was sold at a higher cost.
“The globe needs this vaccine and we are prioritising the needs of India at the moment and we are still short of being able to supply… to every Indian that needs it,” he said.
The SII produces between 60 and 65 million doses per month, Poonawalla said, adding it has so far given around 100 million doses to the Centre and exported 60 million.
He said the SII needed ₹3,000 crore to scale up production by June.
According to a recent report in the British newspaper The Guardian, when Oxford University researchers were developing a coronavirus vaccine a year ago, they intended to allow any manufacturer the rights to their jab. One of the early licences they signed was with the SII. Later, acting on advice from the Gates Foundation, Oxford signed over exclusive rights to the vaccine to AstraZeneca.
AstraZeneca and the SII signed a new deal, under which SII would produce vaccines for all poor countries eligible for assistance by Gavi, an organisation backed by rich countries and the Gates Foundation. However, there was an unwritten arrangement with India, according to the newspaper, that SII Serum would earmark 50 per cent of its supply for domestic use and 50 per cent for export.
Earlier this year, when COVID-19 cases in India began to climb sharply, the Modi government paused exports in a bid to speed up the vaccination drive domestically.
The SII provides the shot at a subsidised rate of around ₹150 to India, a tenth of what it charges for exports.
“The average price is around $20 (₹1,500). (But) because of the Modi government’s request, we are providing at subsidised rates. It is not that we’re not making profits, but we are not making super profits, which is key to re-investing,” Poonawalla told NDTV.