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5 Dead in Fire at Serum Institute of India, Vaccine Maker Says Covishield Production Unaffected

Workers of Serum Institute of India come out of the building after fire broke out in it, in Pune, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (PTI Photo)

Workers of Serum Institute of India come out of the building after fire broke out in it, in Pune, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (PTI Photo)

The Serum Institute announced that it will pay Rs 25 lakh each as compensation to the next of kin of the deceased.

A big fire on Thursday at the Serum Institute of India killed five people, a government official said, but the world's biggest vaccine maker said it would not affect production of Covishield, the AstraZeneca coronavirus shot it is manufacturing locally.

Videos and pictures showed black smoke billowing from a multi-storey building in SII's massive headquarters complex in Pune, Maharashtra, after the fire broke out around 2.45pm. The state government said it has launched an inquiry into the mishap, and a fire audit has been ordered to be conducted on Friday.

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Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said it appears the building in Manjri caught fire due to some ongoing welding work. “Insulation material, which is inflammable, was kept near the work site. So far, 5 deaths have been reported."

The bodies of the five people killed were found in a charred state by firefighters after the blaze was brought under control. But the fire again broke out in the same building in the evening. Pune Mayor Murlidhar Mohol said four people had been evacuated.

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The Serum Institute announced that it will pay Rs 25 lakh each as compensation to the next of kin of the deceased. "We have just received some distressing updates; upon further investigation we have learnt that there has unfortunately been some loss of life at the incident. We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed,” SII Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla said on Twitter.

Videos and pictures showed black smoke billowing from a multi-storey building in SII's massive headquarters. (Photo: News18)

Condolence messages were posted on social media by several politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Anguished by the loss of lives due to an unfortunate fire at the @SerumInstIndia. In this sad hour, my thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives. I pray that those injured recover at the earliest.”

SII has licensed the shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and was also planning to start stockpiling up to 50 million doses a month of a vaccine candidate developed by Novavax Inc from around April.

Covishield is one of the two vaccines being used in India to inoculate health and frontline workers. Many low- and middle-income countries, from Bangladesh to Brazil, are also depending on SII delivering the AstraZeneca vaccine.

"I would like to reassure all governments & the public that there would be no loss of COVISHIELD production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies," Poonawalla said.

Poonawalla told CNBC-TV18 that the fire would mean delays in launching new products and revenue losses of more than Rs 1,000 crore. Equipment worth millions of dollars has been damaged, he said.

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SII is producing around 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine a month at other facilities in the complex, with plans to increase that to as much as 100 million doses soon. The AstraZeneca vaccine is already in use in India and has been shipped to countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives and Bhutan.

According to preliminary information, fire began on the second floor inside one of the buildings. Construction work was going on in the area, where the fire broke out, and preparation for production of BCG vaccine was underway.

According to the Pune Municipal Corporation CFO, "The calls were received around 2.30 pm, the time when the fire was reported."

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray was in touch with the Pune Municipal Commissioner over the matter and directed the state machinery to coordinate and ensure that the situation is under control. Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who was in Pune coincidentally, also took stock of the situation.

With inputs from Herman Agnelo Gomes and Vinaya Deshpande

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