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India vaccination drive aims for 'critical mass' by autumn

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
January 28, 2021

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India (SII), told DW that India hopes to quickly vaccinate its most vulnerable people and vaccine hesitancy is diminishing as more data becomes available.

An Indian health worker counts vials
The Serum Institute manufactures this COVID vaccine developed by AstraZenecaImage: Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS

DW: It has been over a week since India began its nationwide COVID vaccination drive. How do you think the inoculation is going?

Adar Poonawalla: It's been going well. We have managed vaccine hesitancy also very well. People are fully aware and educated on what can and cannot go wrong. We [India] are already in the top 10 countries, as we have inoculated more than a million people within a week. And this will continue to scale up in the coming weeks.

Why have some people been hesitant to take a COVID vaccine shot? Are they waiting for more data on safety and efficacy?

Vaccine hesitancy is slowly going down. People are observing mass campaigns and becoming better informed about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, especially Covishield. [Covishield is what the AstraZeneca vaccine is called in India].

 Adar Poonawalla
Adar Poonawalla is CEO of the Serum Institute of IndiaImage: Serum Institute of India

This is building confidence in people who were perhaps hesitant earlier about getting vaccinated.

I don't think the general population will wait for further data from clinical trials. They will observe the millions of people who are being vaccinated, and that will be proof enough that everyone is safe and protected. That will encourage more people to come forward and take vaccines.

At the moment, there are so many people who want to take a vaccine that it doesn’t really matter that some people don't want to take it.

Of course, this is not an ideal situation; we want everyone to be vaccinated as that ensures safety for everyone. But the trend is definitely improving as we can see.

That said, there is more and more data coming — 6-months data, and 1-year data. As more gets published, it will certainly build more confidence in long term stability and efficacy.

India’s vaccination drive

The feeling now is that the single most awaited product of 2021 has not been received with overwhelming demand. Is that surprising? 

That feeling is diminishing, and everyone is becoming more and more enthusiastic. As more vaccines become available, this trend will become even more positive. At the moment, there are few vaccines to choose from, so, people are waiting for more vaccines to be licensed.

Going by the trend now, when do you predict the "critical mass" of the population being vaccinated so as to break transmission chains?

We are hoping over the next six to eight months the critical mass population of India will be vaccinated. This includes the most vulnerable people: the elderly, people with comorbidities etc. For now, we have set ourselves that target.

How do you see SII’s role in vaccinating developing countries in light of the WHO's recent comments slamming rich countries for taking up supplies?

SII has always been focused on developing countries because they struggle with equitable access to vaccines due to budgetary constraints.

SII has always been filling this gap in the last 3-4 decades and will continue to do so in this pandemic. The priority of all SII COVID vaccines will be for India and low- to middle-income countries (LMICs).

A vaccine shipment arrives in India
A shipment of Covishield arrives at a regional vaccination center in Bhubaneswar, IndiaImage: Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS

As the top producer of vaccines for the developing world, does Serum have a plan to get vaccines to poor countries, and what are the challenges?

Yes, we remain focused on providing vaccines to poorer countries. The only thing we are waiting for is the WHO pre-qualification.

As soon as the experts get an opportunity to complete their analysis of the submissions, we will start supplying vaccines to COVAX and other poorer countries.

A number of countries in India's neighborhood have received the Covishield vaccine. What is the strategy going forward?

The neighboring countries that received the vaccine doses were part of an Indian diplomacy strategy of helping out the neighbors.

Workers pack vaccine vials
Workers pack vials of Covishield at the Serum Institute in PuneImage: Rafiq Maqboo/AP Photo/picture alliance

And we remain committed to exporting vaccines all over the world to help out both rich and poorer countries. We must focus on prioritizing the gaps and inequalities first and try to address them as soon as possible.

Has the recent fire at your factory affected the rollout of the vaccines?

The recent fire at SII was a tragedy, as five young adults lost their lives. However, this will not affect production of the coronavirus vaccines. It will, however, affect some other vaccines that we were planning to expand on.

It will not affect existing supplies and commitments as they will be produced from the existing plants. This includes the BCG, and the Rotavirus vaccine, among others. It was mainly new capacities that were affected.

This will take close to two years to rebuild but that capacity was aimed at entering new markets and additional countries. The existing supply for older vaccines will not be affected.  

Adar Poonawalla is the CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest producer of vaccines.

The interview was conducted by Murali Krishnan and has been edited for context and clarity