Why Covaxin couldn’t lead India’s vaccination drive

Shortage of staff, production crunch: Why Covaxin couldn’t lead India’s vaccination efforts

Being India’s first indigenous vaccine, Covaxin was expected to play a key role in India’s vaccination, but Covishield took its place

A vial of Bharat Biotech's Covaxin. Credit: AFP Photo

Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin was expected to lead India’s immunisation drive when it kicked off in January but production issues and staff shortage maimed the indigenous vaccine and enabled Covishield to assume the key role.

In India, 75.29 crore doses of Serum Institute of India’s Covishield have been given (over 85 per cent), whereas only 9.84 crore doses of Covaxin have been administered so far, according to Co-WIN data.

Bharat Biotech had manufactured 90 lakh doses per month, which was increased to 2 crore doses by May. The vaccine maker missed several production targets and multiple incidents of Covaxin shortage were reported across India during the second wave.

Here’s a look at factors that impacted Covaxin in India.

Challenge of producing inactivated vaccines

Covaxin is an inactivated vaccine, developed using the Whole-Viron Inactivated Vero Cell-derived platform technology. Bharat Biotech chief Krishna Ella told CNBC-TV18 in an interview that inactive vaccines are the toughest to produce in the world.

An inactivated vaccine is made of dead or inactivated viruses and bacteria. A company working with Bharat Biotech has been trying to import equipment required for a key step of vaccine production. It is a long process and has been holding Covaxin back.

Read | Is India likely to get its first intranasal Covid vaccine in near future?

“Setting up new manufacturing facilities, obtaining required regulatory approvals and commissioning, and qualifying them for commercial production is highly resource-intensive and can take around 18-24 months,” a health official told News18.

Experts also suggest that the manufacturing process of inactivated vaccines (Covaxin) is much longer than an adenovirus vector-based vaccine (Covishield).

Shortage of staff

Since the vaccine industry is a small one, staff is a problem faced by all major players, especially for jobs that require interaction with a live virus or working in Biosafety Level 3 and Biosafety Level 4 facilities, officials were quoted as saying by News18.

“It’s a huge challenge as they might not find suitable candidates and it takes a lot of time to attract and train new people to take responsibilities. You may never know when the rival company may poach your talent as you finish their training. All companies, right now, are looking out for trained staffers with best possible salary offers,” he added.

Read | Paediatric Covaxin: Bharat Biotech completes phase 2/3 trials

Production splits

Bharat Biotech has facilities in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Karnataka, Pune and Ankleshwar to manufacture Covaxin and it also has deals with three public sector companies for the same. Experts quoted in the report believe that production has been distributed to too many units which are far away from the headquarters in Hyderabad.

Glitches in scale-up process

Inadequate supply of Covaxin has limited the Centre’s ability to inoculate the target population of 94.47 crore with two doses of the Covid vaccines by December 2021.

"There were glitches in the scale-up process and the company was over-confident with their claims,” a top government official had told DH on the condition of anonymity.

With DHNS inputs

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