Serum Institute nears $400M grant to boost AstraZeneca COVID shot production—just as material shortages mount

A “very stressed” Serum Institute of India recently called on its government for tens of billions of rupees to boost production of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. It now seems that help is on the way.

India is set to accept Serum Institute’s 30 billion rupee ($400 million) grant request, The Economic Times reports, citing a government source close to the talks. With that cash in hand, the world's biggest vaccine maker will aim to produce more than 100 million doses of the shot per month by the end of May, up from around 70 million doses per month, the publication reports.

The move comes as India struggles with its vaccine rollout amid a variant-fueled case surge. For its part, Serum Institute is sounding the alarm on dwindling raw materials and manufacturing equipment that threaten its production push.

Serum Institute blames its supply hiccups in part on U.S. export controls, which have crimped supplies of materials like the sterile plastic bags needed to grow vaccine cells.

In February, the Biden administration said it would tap the Defense Production Act (DPA) to beef up shot-making in the U.S. This has helped local companies shore up materials and equipment, but also makes exporting more difficult for firms who supply those products overseas, The Economist reports.

Those companies must seek permission to export, delaying the process, and if the U.S. decides it needs those materials, the government can bar exports altogether.

Last week, Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla took to Twitter, pleading with President Joe Biden to ease exports coming out of the U.S.—complete with a pair of entreating emojis.

It wasn’t the first time Poonawalla raised supply flags. In early March, the Serum Institute chief warned export blocks on materials like bags and filters from the U.S. could scupper its work on Novavax’s late-stage protein-based shot.

“The Novavax vaccine, which we’re a major manufacturer for, needs these items from the U.S.,” Poonawalla said at a World Bank panel discussion last month. "If we’re talking about building capacity all over the world, the sharing of these critical raw materials, which just can’t be replaced in a matter of six months or a year, is going to become a critical limiting factor.”

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Serum Institute has agreed to manufacture some 1 billion Novavax doses in 2021. Novavax, for its part, is angling to crank out a total of at least 2 billion doses annually once its full manufacturing capacity comes online this year.

Meanwhile, raw materials shortages may have delayed Novavax’s supply contracts in Europe, Reuters reported in late March. The news came as Novavax CEO Stan Erck told the Observer that limited quantities of 2,000-liter bags could threaten the global vaccine supplies.

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The problem isn’t unique to Novavax and Serum Institute, The Economist reports. At a vaccine supply chain meeting last month, an unnamed European pharma company complained about the 66-week delivery times for bags, the news outlet wrote. Ireland’s prime minister Micheál Martin warned later that month that export bans from the U.S. and beyond would threaten global vaccine production.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, co-leading the COVAX shot distribution initiative with the World Health Organization and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is “extremely concerned about constraints on global supply chains,” organization chief Richard Hatchett, M.D., said.