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Deadly fire at massive Indian plant cranking out Oxford's COVID vaccine

Efforts underway to achieve global immunization from COVID
Efforts underway to achieve global immunization from coronavirus 01:55

New Delhi — Five people were killed by a fire that erupted at the sprawling complex of the Serum Institute of India, one of the world's biggest vaccine-making facilities which is currently producing millions of doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The fire broke out Thursday afternoon in a building still under construction on the 100-acre site in the southwest city of Pune. It was brought under control by Thursday evening, but at least two of the top floors of the five-story building were gutted.

"Today is an extremely sorrowful day for all of us at Serum Institute of India. Regrettably, there were losses of lives in the fire that broke out," Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman and managing director of the Serum Institute of India, said in a statement. He said the victims' families would be offered "compensation" of about $34,000 each, in addition to any mandated payout.

Workers wearing protective gear are seen after a fire broke out at the Serum Institute of India, in Pune, on January 21, 2021. AFP via Getty

Pune Mayor Murlidhar Mohol confirmed that five people had died. Their bodies were recovered from the charred floors of the building.  

Earlier in the day Adar Poonawalla, the Serum Institute's CEO and son of its chairman, said production of the coronavirus vaccine, produced in India under the brand name Covishield, would not be affected by the fire. He later noted that an unspecified quantity of other vaccines, including for tuberculosis and Rotavirus disease, were destroyed in the blaze.

Police and fire officials said the fire would be investigated. The cause was not immediately clear.

Fire breaks out at Serum Institute of India in Pune
Firemen douse a fire at the Serum Institute of India in Pune, India, on January 21, 2021. Anadolu Agency/Getty

The Serum Institute started shipping out hundreds of thousands of doses of Covishield just last week. It says it should have 100 million doses produced by March.

India launched what has been described as the world's biggest mass-vaccination drive on Saturday. The government plans to immunize 300 million people by July. Along with the Covishield shots, India will also use Covaxin, a domestic vaccine produced by Bharat Biotech.

Serum Institute of India is the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, producing 1.5 billion doses annually of drugs to combat a range of diseases including polio, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella. Its products are exported to more than 170 countries. 

Several middle- and low-income nations are relying on the Serum Institute to supply their coronavirus vaccine stocks through the global, World Health Organization-backed, COVAX plan. The project, aimed at ensuring fair distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the world, has secured an order of 200 million doses from the Serum facility. 

Bangladesh, Nepal, and several African and central Asian countries are expecting their first shipments of Covishield in the coming weeks.

India exported first batches of the Oxford-formulated vaccine from Serum to Bhutan and the Maldives on Wednesday.

The U.K.'s mass-vaccination plan is also relying heavily on the Oxford/AstraZeneca drug, but that stock is being produced in Britain.

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