Serum Institute chief sounds alarm over vaccine raw materials shortage

Adar Poonawalla says export curbs will harm world’s Covid inoculation drive

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Export curbs by the US on raw materials critical for Covid-19 shots will slow global efforts to inoculate people, the head of the world’s largest vaccine producer said.

Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, expressed concern that his company and others would face shortages of vital supplies after the Biden administration placed export controls on them to boost domestic vaccine production.

"We are all hoping here in this part of the world that [Biden] looks at a more global perspective and allows a relaxation, even if it is a temporary one, for filters, bags and these key raw materials that are only sourced from the US," he said during an interview with the BBC's Hard Talk.

It's going to take at least two years before we reach a 50 per cent mark

Mr Poonawalla said the supplies were required by manufacturers to vaccinate the global community.

The interview was filmed before some countries paused the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine citing blood clot fears.

Last week, the White House said it had used the Korean War-era US Defence Production Act, which prevents the export of materials to prioritise local production, to help drugmaker Merck make Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine.

SII is producing the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca at its factory in Pune, western India.

By January, the company has already released 95 million doses, half of them for local use, with monthly production set to increase from May to 100 million doses, from 60 million.

Mr Poonawalla also called for global harmonisation of regulations so vials could be distributed faster.

“If they all get together – India, China, Russia, US, UK and other regions – we will be able to shave off months between having the product ready and it being shipped out,” he said.

Each regulator required data to be submitted in different formats, adding weeks to the process, he said.

He repeated warnings that it was unlikely half the world's population would be immunised against Covid-19 by 2022.

“It’s going to take at least two years before we reach a 50 per cent mark, especially now, when we see the kind of capacity available and the way countries are able to vaccinate at a certain speed and pace.”

Researchers have said that not all 7.8 billion people on Earth must be vaccinated to halt the pandemic. Studies show that between 25 to 50 per cent of the population, need to be immunised to reach herd immunity.

Mr Poonawalla said he had begun building a factory to produce vaccines for Covid-19 variants and as forward planning for the next pandemic.

This was in reference to comments by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who has called for a global reserve to cope with future outbreaks.

SII has plans for a factory that could make a billion doses within months, but needs major funding from governments.

“I will eventually go to governments and offer this to different regional governments so they don’t have to build their own facilities which might become too costly and impossible for them to do,” Mr Poonawalla said.

“That is exactly what I’m planning to do, God forbid, for the next pandemic or even as this pandemic continues and drags on with various different mutated strains where you might need new vaccines to be produced at short notice.”

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