Centre's 2 billion vaccines dream: Can happen only if daily production rises six-fold, say experts

The projected doses include 75 crore doses of Covishield, 55 crore doses of Covaxin and 15.6 crore doses of Sputnik V whose local production will begin from July. 
For representational purposes (Photo | PTI)
For representational purposes (Photo | PTI)

NEW DELHI: A day after Centre's pledge that over 2 billion doses of Covid vaccines will be available in India during the last five months this year, experts expressed scepticism over the projected numbers saying they look “impractical”, if not “impossible”.

The country as of now produces just 2.3 million doses of Covid vaccine daily, but the figures projected by the government suggest that this will rise by 6-fold between August-December.

In a press briefing on Thursday, V K Paul, member, Niti Aayog, who also heads the National Covid task force said that 2.16 billion doses of Covid vaccines are set to be available in the country between August-December, enough to cover nearly 95 crore of India’s adult population.

The projected doses include 75 crore doses of Covishield, 55 crore doses of Covaxin and 15.6 crore doses of Sputnik V whose local production will begin from July. 

The estimates also included 30 crore doses of Covid vaccine by BioE, 5 crore doses of Zydus Cadila vaccine, 20 crore doses of vaccine by Serum Institute of India-Novavax, 10 crore doses of Bharat Biotech-Washington University’s nasal vaccine and 6 crore doses of Gennova vaccine—all of which are still under various phases of clinical trials.

Those who have tracked Covid vaccine developments over the years, however, have a major concern -- how can the production be ramped up so quickly?

“It is a very ambitious target and I would be happily surprised if that’s achieved—but I am now sure how that is going to happen,” said microbiologist and immunologist Sudhanshu Vrati.

According to R Ramakumar, an economist with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, as per the projections, SII will have to raise the production of Covishield to nearly 3 times per day to meet the target.  

“SII is already struggling to meet the promise of 3.3 million doses of Covishield per day by July. How are they going to make 6.4 million doses per day by December?,” he asked.

To meet the target of 55 crore doses of Covaxin in 5 months, its 3.7 million doses will have to be produced per day, Ramakumar also pointed out, adding that how is that possible given that the three undertakings that the government has tied up with for its production, will not start producing before 8-12 months.

Vrati said, given that the undertakings roped in include BIBCOL, a firm which has no experience of vaccine manufacturing, it may take 36, not 6 months, before it can start shelling out the vaccine.

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"Even if the work starts on war footing now to create biosafety level 3 labs in these companies, required for Covaxin production, it may take at least 6 months for the vaccine batches to roll out from these plants," he said.

But it's not only the experts who are raising doubts. The Union government, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court last week, had said that Covaxin production per day will rise from 0.3 million doses to 3.3 million "in the next 8-10 months".

And it's not only these two vaccines whose capacity escalation appear to be difficult, most others -- projected to be available in abundance -- are yet to even prove their efficacy.

“These vaccine candidates first need to show trial results and get regulatory approvals based on evidence,” said K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. 

On being asked whether the promise of enough vaccines for all by year end looks feasible, Reddy added: “The government must have had a discussion with manufacturers before coming up with the projections, so we will have to wait and see."

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