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5 dead as fire breaks out at Serum facility

Five people were killed in a blaze that ripped through the top floor and partially damaged another floor of a five-storey building at a facility of the Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune on Thursday, but the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer said the incident will not hit the production of coronavirus shot Covishield
By Shalaka Shinde, Pune
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 11:59 PM IST

Five people were killed in a blaze that ripped through the top floor and partially damaged another floor of a five-storey building at a facility of the Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune on Thursday, but the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer said the incident will not hit the production of coronavirus shot Covishield.

Officials said at least four people were rescued from SII’s Manjari premises in an operation spanning over an hour to bring the fire under control and save those trapped. They added that the nearest Covishield production and storage units are at least a kilometre away from the under-constructionbuilding that went up in flames.

The Maharashtra government ordered a probe into the incident. State health minister Rajesh Tope said initial findings suggested that the fire was caused due to welding work and spread fast due to the presence of inflammatory material on the premises.

“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 tweeted in the evening, a little more than an hour after posting that there were no casualties or major injuries.

All of those killed were contractual labourers involved in work related to electricity; two of them from Uttar Pradesh, one from Bihar and two from Pune, according to according to Manjari legislator Chetan Tupe. Their bodies were found on the fifth floor of the building called MSEZ-03. Later in the day, SII announced an ex-gratia payment of 25 lakh each for the families of the deceased.

“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 at @SerumInstIndia. Thank you very much @PuneCityPolice & Fire Department,” Poonawalla said in another tweet.

His organisation is manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine by Oxford University and British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca in India, where the world’s largest inoculation drive began on January 16 thanks to SII’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s indigenously produced Covaxin.

India is also shipping Covishield to its neighbours, strengthening them in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Six countries – Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Seychelles and Myanmar – are part of India’s initial rollout of vaccines as grant assistance.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was anguished by the loss of lives. “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,” he tweeted.

Television visuals showed huge plumes of smoke billowing from the building as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze.

“Fire at Serum Institute of India in Pune has been brought under control...I have been informed that the Covid vaccine manufacturing plant is safe,” chief minister Uddhav Thackeray told the media during an interaction at a guest house at Malabar Hill on Mumbai’s suburbs on Thursday evening.

Thackeray will visit the Manjari facility on Friday noon, according to Pune district officials.

Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar said directives “have been issued to the Pune police commissioner for a detailed investigation into the incident”. He said a fire audit will be conducted at the building. “(Also) A team of experts will determine the cause (of the fire),” Pawar added.

Officials said the five-storey building (ground plus five floors) was planned as an extension to the production facility for rotavirus. It is a part of the Manjari facility, which falls in a special economic zone and is around 15km from Pune, which began functioning in September 2019 as an extension to SII’s Hadapsar facility in the city.

The fire broke out at on the fourth and fifth floors of the building and the fire department received a call around 3:50pm, according to Pune fire brigade control room officials. It rushed at least 10 fire-tenders to the spot. The fire was brought under control around 5pm and the bodies were found during a rescue operation around 5:30pm. Embers resurfaced at around 7pm during the cooling process, but the situation was quickly brought under control.

“It is the fire experts who will only be able to ascertain the actual cause of the fire,” said Tupe, the local legislator.

SII is producing around 50 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine a month at other facilities in the complex. It also has plans to make up to 50 million doses of a vaccine candidate developed by Novavax Inc from around April.

SII, which also makes shots against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella, plans to supply 200 million doses to Covax, a World Health Organisation-backed effort to procure and distribute inoculations to poor countries.

(With agency inputs)

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