The Serum Institute of India (SII), headed by Adar Poonawalla, has been at the forefront of India’s fight against the Coronavirus pandemic. With strong governmental support under the Modi regime, the world’s largest vaccine producer accelerated its mass production and helped immunize millions of people across the world. SII is currently producing 6.5 crore Covishield (developed by Oxford-Astrazeneca) doses a month.
However, the vaccine manufacturer had to face governmental and bureaucratic hurdles during the UPA regime in 2012, at the time of the swine flu epidemic. As per a 2012 Indian Express report, the 2009 swine flu epidemic motivated the then government to pay ₹10 crores to three pharmaceutical companies, namely, SII, Bharat Biotech, and Panacea Biotech, for the manufacture of an indigenous vaccine against the swine flu. The Congress government had directed the pharmaceutical companies to deliver the vaccine doses within 3 months of the date of the order.
Reportedly, the vaccines were to be used as stockpiles during emergencies. As per the government’s directives, the vaccines were to be procured in December 2011. Given the short window for vaccine delivery, the vaccine manufacturers had demanded additional time for the completion of clinical trials and vaccine testing at central drug laboratories. SII was able to provide the first batch of H1N1 vaccines to the government only on March 5, 2012. The laxity on the government’s part left Serum Institute of India and other firms in the doldrums, despite its assurance of authorized marketing commitment (AMC) to procure H1N1 vaccines.
SS Jadhav, the then executive Director of SII told Indian Express that the UPA government had been reluctant to use 52,000 doses of vaccines that the company provided. He had informed that the shelf life of the vaccines would expire in August 2012 and would be wasted if the government did not use the existing lot or procure from the company. A letter was sent to this effect by the Vaccine Manufacturers’ Association to the Centre but it was in vain.
While speaking about the matter, SII’s Business Development director Sunil Bahl remarked, “If the government had a problem with our quotation, they should not have placed the order. We set up a bio-safety laboratory, used expensive raw material, and incurred expenses to the tune of Rs 50 crore. Now the government is demanding their Rs 10 crore back along with interest and refusing to take the supply of vaccine as it was not given within the time period.” Forced by circumstances, the Serum Institute of India moved the Delhi High Court in June 2012 under section 9 of the Arbitration Act. “We are ready to provide the vaccine for people only if the demand goes up,” SS Jadhav had said.
Congress, left-liberal lobby at the helm of creating vaccine hesitancy in India
After successfully derailing plans to mass vaccinate the people against swine flu, the Congress party along with its vicious lobby held on to the agenda of hindering India’s vaccination drive against Coronavirus. Fuelled by a collective hatred for PM Modi, they targetted the vaccine manufacturers in a bid to demoralize them. One of the strategies employed by them was discrediting the indigenous Covaxin vaccine, developed by Bharat Biotech. The government had approved its emergency use in the month of January.
Using this as the primary tool for propaganda, Congress leaders such as Shashi Tharoor, Manish Tewari, and Chhattisgarh health Minister TS Singh Deo trivialised the vaccination drive altogether. This is despite the fact that Covishield (developed by Oxford-Astrazeneca) and manufactured by Serum Institue of India (SII) was primarily used until Covaxin completed the third phase trials (with 81% efficacy). Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav had gone even a step further to claim that he could not trust ‘BJP’s vaccine’. He claimed that he would only get vaccinated when his government is formed after the next election.
Lawyer-turned-activist Prashant Bhushan had discouraged the Indian government in early February from procuring the Covershield vaccine from a private company, the Serum Institute of India (SII). He had blamed the government for supposedly splurging ₹35,000 crore funds for Coronavirus vaccines at a time when the pandemic is ‘naturally dying down’ in India.