New Delhi: The Government of India is in talks with Bharat Biotech for manufacturing Covaxin in the Integrated Vaccine Complex (IVC) in Chengalpattu, an hour’s drive from Chennai.
The vaccine complex, originally envisaged by the UPA government so that India becomes self-reliant in vaccines, has been in existence for nine years but is yet to manufacture a single dose of vaccine.
“We have been looking for companies who can manufacture Covid-19 vaccines in that plant. Bharat Biotech is one of the tender applicants and we are in talks with them because they are the only ones so far that have a ready Covid-19 vaccine. Nothing is final yet,” a senior government official told ThePrint.
Sources in the health ministry say that the paperwork to get the Rs 904 crore plant up and going started in January when tender applications were invited, but given the immediate need to bolster Covid-19 vaccines supplies in India, Bharat is currently a “frontrunner”.
IVC has never manufactured vaccines but is currently churning out hand sanitisers and alcohol-based disinfectants.
ThePrint reached Bharat Biotech spokesperson for a comment via phone, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
India’s Covid-19 vaccination programme has, in the last few weeks, been plagued with repeated complaints from states and private hospitals about shortage of vaccines even as the central government refuted the claims. The matter has now been reduced to a bout of political mudslinging, with states accusing the Centre of apportioning vaccines by political colour and the Centre, in turn, accusing states of resorting to politics to cover up their own failings.
Sources in the health ministry say that the problem has been the inability of the two licensed Covid-19 vaccines producers in India (there are currently three but Sputnik V is not available yet) to scale up production.
Bharat Biotech’s official commitment, officials say, is of one crore doses a month but it has never met that target. Serum Institute of India (SII), which is the Indian manufacturer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine Covishield, has a commitment of 6-6.5 crore doses per month, but is falling short too, officials say.
SII has cited the fire inside its manufacturing complex in February as one of the reasons for its inability to scale up production.
IVC has six production lines
The IVC facility at Chengalpattu that was conceived in 2012 has six production lines and a total capacity of about 600 million doses, say officials in the health ministry. Part of the reason why it could not be operationalised in the last few years, they say, are major cost overruns that raised the investment in the facility to over Rs 900 crore from the original estimate of Rs 600 crore.
“The initial cost for setting up the vaccine complex was about Rs 600 crore. But there were cost overruns. Currently, there are about Rs 100 crore worth of pending bills. There are six production lines for vaccine manufacturing, but they are not currently functional. Whoever gets to run the place will need to invest another Rs 150 crore or so to make it fully functional,” an official said about the 100-acre facility.
There is already staff unrest there with salaries being reduced even as the workload now comprises entirely of maintaining the equipment since there is no vaccine production to be done.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)