With 200M unused doses, AstraZeneca's COVID vaccine partner Serum Institute halts production

About 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine are gathering dust in warehouses of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer as global demand ebbs.

Serum Institute of India (SII) stopped making new COVID-19 vaccine doses in December, CEO Adar Poonawalla said at the India Economic Conclave, as quoted by Bloomberg. The company currently sits on a stockpile of 200 million doses, he said.

“I have even offered to give free donations to whoever wanted to take it,” Poonawalla said, expressing concern over potential waste.

SII’s situation reflects a declining demand as the sense of urgency for vaccination appears to be waning around the globe. Companies like SII, which rushed to build capacity amid an initial shortage, are now taking the slowdown the hardest.

“The momentum of the past that brought us so far here is lost,” Poonawalla said, as quoted by The Indian Express.

The chief executive blamed increased vaccine fatigue among the public, plus the Indian government’s lack of action on authorizations for shorter dosing intervals and for younger children, as the reasons for a sluggish uptake.

“Once the perception set in that omicron is less likely to lead to severe illness, and the vaccines don’t do a great job at preventing infection while still providing strong protection against severe illness, demand for COVID vaccines has tailed off considerably,” Eurasia Group’s Scott Rosenstein told Bloomberg separately.

SII helps AstraZeneca make its Oxford University-partnered shot, known as Covishield in India. It’s a core supplier for the global COVAX initiative, which aims for equitable access to COVID vaccines. The AZ shot was originally the main type of vaccine offered to mid- and low-income countries because of its less stringent temperature requirement compared with mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

But poorer countries are now declining the AZ shot made by SII, Reuters recently reported. Short shelf life was cited as a reason, a spokesperson for Gavi, which helps run COVAX, told the news wire. For the six months between April and September, those nations only requested about half a million doses of Covishield and about 16 million doses of the twin Vaxzevria shot manufactured in Europe, Reuters noted.

SII is also partnered to make Novavax’s recombinant protein vaccine, which got an emergency use authorization in India toward the end of 2021.

It’s not just SII and AstraZeneca seeing a slowdown for COVID products. Johnson & Johnson is also projecting a big decline in demand for its single-shot option, so it has stopped making revenue projections for the product. In the first quarter, the J&J shot generated $457 million in sales, way below Wall Street’s previous estimate of $785 million.

As for Pfizer and BioNTech’s Comirnaty, which has been the world’s best-selling COVID shot, analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald have also warned that its first-quarter number may disappoint. After digging into distribution numbers, the team figured Comirnaty’s U.S. sales during the three months of the year were likely below $2 billion. Pfizer will report its first-quarter results in early May.