Chengalpattu/New Delhi: With a second wave of Covid-19 sweeping India and new strains of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen threatening more harm, the clamour for vaccines is increasing. But an ambitious state-of-the-art public sector vaccine manufacturing plant in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, that could have potentially played a key role has been lying idle for almost nine years.
In 2012, the UPA government gave the nod for the Integrated Vaccine Complex to be set up over 100 acres of land in Chengalpattu, an hour’s drive from state capital Chennai. The facility was meant to be the nodal centre for manufacturing, research and supply of vaccines at affordable prices under the Universal Immunisation Programme of the Government of India. It was to produce vaccines against rabies, measles, Japanese Encephalitis, and Hepatitis B among other diseases, with a total capacity of 585 million doses.
However, so far, it has not developed a single vaccine.
In the middle of a pandemic, a facility which was declared a ‘Project of National Importance’ has not only been non-functional, but only contributed to the national effort against Covid-19 by manufacturing hand sanitisers.
The IVC, spread across a sprawling 100 acres, wore a deserted look when the ThePrint visited the facility recently. The lone security guard lounged about, reading a newspaper and fixing his hair in the mirror. A woman from the nearby village herding goats stopped and said: “This building has been here for ages, but I don’t know what it’s for. I’ve rarely seen people come and go. It’s just there.”
Perhaps due to the need to scale up vaccinations and bolster vaccine output, in January 2021, HLL Biotech Limited, the central government enterprise tasked with setting up and running the IVC, invited expressions of interest from vaccine manufacturers to run the facility on an ‘as is where is basis’ (Indian courts hold that whatever be the condition of the property on the spot, it shall be sold in the same condition).
To apply, companies needed to have an annual turnover of Rs 500 crore or above for the last three years and a net worth of a minimum of Rs 300 crore. But there has not been much progress in this direction, though sources in the central government told ThePrint that the likes of Bharat Biotech and Biocon have expressed interest.
Beji George, the managing director of the IVC, said “the vaccine facility has not been functional”. But he refused to answer ThePrint’s questions sent via email, phone and text messages.
A senior official in the Tamil Nadu health department told ThePrint: “The IVC had never even started. However, once the facility is up and running, as private players come on board, with its state of the art facility, the IVC will be a big asset for the entire country.”
ThePrint emailed Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan and the Press Information Bureau with questions about the Chengalpattu IVC, but did not receive a response till the time of publication of this report.
An important project
HLL Biotech Limited (HBL), a subsidiary of the central government-run HLL Lifecare that’s best known for producing contraceptives, was entrusted with constructing the IVC to produce life-saving and cost-effective vaccines, primarily to minimise the demand-supply gap. The cost of setting up the IVC was estimated to be Rs 600 crore, but there were massive overruns.
Former Union health minister and Pattali Makkal Katchi leader Anbumani Ramadoss told the incumbent Harsh Vardhan in a letter in 2019 that the delay in completion of the project had escalated the cost of the IVC from Rs 594 crore in 2013 to Rs 710 crore in 2017, and then finally to Rs 904 crore in 2019.
While the Centre approved the cost escalation in 2017, it did not approve the project escalation to Rs 904 crore in 2019, expressing concerns about its “non-profitability”.
On 9 January 2021, Harsh Vardhan visited the IVC, accompanied by Tamil Nadu Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar and Health Secretary J. Radhakrishnan.
A week later, on 16 January — the same day as Covid-19 vaccination was rolled out across the country — HBL invited expressions of interest from vaccine manufacturers. Officials said the decision was taken after HBL received several queries about the facility, and some interested companies even visited the facility for an on-site assessment.
However, a senior official of the Union health ministry familiar with the matter said the issue was complex, and a private firm would need to do a lot to get the plant up and running.
“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,” the official said.
“Vaccine manufacturing is not an easy job. One needs the seed (capital) and also, there are several other issues that need ironing out. But we have received a positive response. Several companies are interested in running the place, including Bharat Biotech and Biocon,” the official added.
Politicians raised the issue too
Between October 2019 and November 2020, six Tamil Nadu politicians — DMK MPs Dayanidhi Maran, S. Senthil Kumar and G. Selvam, PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss and CPI(M)’s current MP P.R. Natarajan and former MP T.K. Rangarajan — wrote to Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on the Chengalpattu IVC issue.
Most highlighted the lack of funds, and how the plant was in shambles and its workers in a poor state, and recommended ways to better utilise it, especially since the pandemic began.
G. Selvam also wrote to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when he sent his letter to the health minister in November 2019, while Rangarajan’s February 2020 letter was also accompanied by one to PM Modi. Both requested fund allotment for the IVC.
In April 2020, a plea was even filed in the Madras High Court to involve the IVC in containing Covid-19.
Rangarajan, a former Rajya Sabha MP, had also raised the issue of privatisation in his letter to Vardhan, at a time when the government’s think-tank NITI Aayog was in favour of privatising the IVC. The CPI(M) leader advised against it, saying in a country like India, vaccines had to be affordable and only the public sector could do that.
Speaking to ThePrint, Rangarajan said: “If the complex goes to private players, it will become only commerce and the vaccines will only be sold where they get maximum profit; not where they are required.”
What workers say
K. Palaniswami, vice-president of the Chengalpattu District Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the trade union wing of the CPI(M), spoke to ThePrint about the condition of workers at the IVC, and said only maintenance work is going on at present at the complex on borrowed money. The staff strength of 250, including scientists and labourers, has been reduced to 90, he said.
“Since 2019, there has also been a reduction in salaries — for scientists, from Rs 45,000 to Rs 25,000 per month, and for non-executive staff, Rs 10,000 per month from the previous Rs 15,000,” Palaniswami said.
A labourer at the IVC, who didn’t wish to be named, said: “It’s not as though they even give the salaries regularly. If we get a salary one month, then the next month we don’t get it.”
This labourer explained that for the 30 labourers and non-executive workers, the IVC functions in three shifts from 6 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 10 pm and 10 pm to 6 am, while for the scientists — 60 of them — there’s a regular shift from 9 am to 5:30 pm. He said even if there is no manufacturing, the maintenance of equipment requires manpower, and pointed out the IVC has been producing hand sanitisers and alcohol-based disinfectants.
CITU’s Palaniswami added: “Agitations by locals delayed the construction of the complex. But since it has been constructed, no work has actually happened. Private sector lobbies don’t want vaccines to be manufactured at a government plant because then they will have to be sold at a much lower cost, and all the private companies will not be able to enjoy profits.”
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
Disclosure: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Executive Chairperson, Biocon, is among the distinguished founder-investors of ThePrint. Please click here for details on investors.