COVID-19 vaccine production unaffected by deadly Indian fire, company says

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, said on Thursday that production of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine would not be affected by a deadly fire at its headquarters in Maharashtra state.

Videos and pictures from Reuters partner ANI showed black smoke billowing from a multi-storey building in the SSI's massive complex in the city of Pune. The blaze, which police said killed five people, had been brought under control but not extinguished.

"We mourn the unfortunate demise of the 5 people," Pune's police department said on Twitter. We "will conduct a thorough screening of the premises once the fire is doused".

The Maharashtra government said the fire could have been caused by an electrical fault during construction work.

SII has licensed the coronavirus vaccine 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.

Many low- and middle-income countries, from Bangladesh to Brazil, are depending on SII to deliver the AstraZeneca vaccine, branded COVISHIELD by the Indian company.

"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," SII Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla said on Twitter.

Poonawalla, whose family owns SII, was quoted as saying by broadcaster CNBC-TV18 that the fire would mean delays in launching new products and revenue losses of more than 10 billion rupees ($137 million). Equipment worth millions of dollars has been damaged, he said.

But a source familiar with the matter said manufacturing of COVID-19 shots would not be affected and that none of the new production equipment for vaccines was housed in the building that caught fire.

The company announced a compensation of 2.5 million rupees ($34,243) for families of the people who died at the "under-installation facility".

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 has already been approved in India, which has used the shot and another home-grown one to inoculate about 1 million people since Saturday. The AstraZeneca vaccination has also been shipped to countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives and Bhutan.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das, Rajendra Jadhav, Euan Rocha and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Simon Cameron-Moore, Giles Elgood and Paul Simao)