PUNE, India—As much of the world struggled to secure Covid-19 vaccine supplies last month, more than 50 million doses were chilling in a warehouse in western India, stacked more than 50 feet high.
The company with the stockpile, Serum Institute of India, used to be little known outside the vaccine industry, but its capacity to ramp up production to more than 70 million doses a month has now put it and India solidly at center stage in the fight against the pandemic.
The U.S., Japan and Australia have just pledged more than $200 million to help Indian companies expand their capacities faster and add one billion doses to the global supply. Tapping India’s vaccine production capabilities was at the center of virtual talks Friday among the leaders of those three countries and India, an alliance trying to counter Chinese expansionism known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad.
China and Russia have been supplying vaccines produced domestically to much of the developing world, while the U.S. has so far focused much of its efforts on ensuring supplies for Americans.
“We are talking about huge investments in creating additional vaccine capacities in India, for export to countries in the Indo-Pacific region for their betterment,” said Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla at a briefing after the Quad summit on Friday. “We’re talking about really immunizing people in an entire region.”
The final details and scope of the Quad vaccine program are still being worked out, an Indian official said. It will start by financing an expansion of production capacity at an Indian company, Biological E Ltd., to make one billion doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine. Authorities might later consider including support for the Serum Institute’s production of a vaccine by Novavax Inc., the official said.
The program will attempt to replicate the success the Serum Institute has had at ramping up production. Serum Institute at first had contracted with AstraZeneca PLC to supply vaccines only to countries in the developing world, but it was able to build up production capacity so quickly that it is now filling orders in the West as well. Earlier this month, it sent five million doses to the U.K., home of the University of Oxford, which developed the vaccine with AstraZeneca.
India has been the world’s biggest vaccine producer for years. It produces more than half of the volume of the world’s vaccines and has built a specialization in doing large batches of vaccines for emerging markets, which need each shot to cost less than a few dollars.
As mass production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines has proven difficult, more countries and vaccine producers have been turning to India for help.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand why they can’t get vaccines, why it is so hard to just get supply,” said Serum Institute Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla. “People underestimate manufacturing at scale; sometimes it’s actually harder to manufacture at scale than it is to even develop or invent a vaccine.”
Earlier this year, the makers of vaccines approved for use in the EU— Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca PLC—cut deliveries because of manufacturing bottlenecks. China and Russia have also been running into problems with vaccine production.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office outlined what is getting in the way of making more vaccines in a report last month, saying the building of new facilities, delays in the delivery of equipment and other supplies and the lack of experienced managers have all weighed on expanding manufacturing capacity.
“Vaccine manufacturing is highly complex and generally will ramp up at a gradual pace, rather than starting at full scale,” the report said.
Serum Institute could move more quickly than most because it already had more capacity than any manufacturer, much of which it could repurpose to produce Covid-19 vaccines. Its sprawling facility in the western Indian city of Pune, about 100 miles southeast of Mumbai, is crowded with trucks, picking up pallets of vaccines and dropping off the supplies needed to make, package and deliver them—millions of vials, stoppers, ice packs and coolers.
New Delhi has stationed an official here to keep track of where vaccines are going. The company has added hundreds of staff to boost production, including 50 commandos to guard the facility.
Before the pandemic, the Serum Institute was already making around 1.5 billion doses of vaccines per year. It has been the go-to supplier for international organizations such as Unicef and emerging markets because it sells most vaccines at less than $1 a dose. It does that, and still makes a profit, by making batches of millions of doses at a time. Over the decades that it has been doing this, it has built special skills, equipment and analytics that few can match.
As soon as its first vial of the cellular material used to create the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in May, Serum Institute’s scientists started growing enough of it to fill large containers—some able to hold 2,000 liters, or nearly 530 gallons.
Over time, its scientists figured out how to make the doses faster, tinkering with the process to get more out of each batch. The secret, say Serum’s scientists, is knowing how to grow large amounts of cells in bigger bioreactors, the large metal vats used to grow the cells to make vaccines. It is also knowing the right moment to introduce the virus into the cells, as well as when to harvest that virus, which becomes the base for the vaccines.
It took months to understand the best way to mass produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, said Umesh Shaligram, an executive director at Serum. “You have to understand—to kind of sense—how your cells are behaving, how a virus is behaving. It takes a bit of time to understand,” he said. “Each batch you run you understand better.”
By December, it was making 30 million doses a month. This month it is making more than 70 million doses, and it expects to reach 100 million in the next month or two.
“What we’re doing now on a monthly basis is what most companies are doing on an annual basis,” said Mr. Poonawalla. “We worked very hard to rejig all these facilities and get equipment in record time to do it.”
Serum Institute is now trying to repeat the rapid roll out, this time building capacity to produce one billion doses of a Covid-19 vaccine from Novavax, which was recently shown to be 89.3% effective at protecting people from the disease. In a separate facility in a new building, six 4,000 liter steel vats, imported earlier this year, were being installed and tested.
Success has brought a new kind of headache as Serum has had to try to navigate a backlash against its announcements. As it started exporting tens of millions of doses world-wide, some questioned why the doses weren’t being kept for Indians. When deliveries to the first countries were announced, others asked why they weren’t getting doses.
“I humbly request you to please be patient, @SerumInstIndia has been directed to prioritise the huge needs of India and along with that balance the needs of the rest of the world,” Mr. Poonawalla tweeted last month. “We are trying our best.”
Write to Eric Bellman at firstname.lastname@example.org
—Rajesh Roy contributed to this article.
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