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How world’s top vaccine maker stumbled in its COVID dose drive | Business and Economy News



Around the world, from Bangladesh to Nepal to Rwanda, vulnerable hotspots have been grappling with stalled Covid-19 vaccination programs as they run out of doses. Many of those shortages can be traced back to a single company: The Serum Institute of India.

The world’s largest vaccine maker, Serum was last year named a top supplier of Covid shots to Covax, the World Health Organization-backed initiative aimed at securing an equitable global rollout. But the Indian company has been dogged by setbacks, from a ban on exports to a factory fire, that have hampered its ability to fill orders.

Covax has pledged to send shots to some 92 countries, but has so far received only 30 million of the minimum 200 million doses it ordered from Serum, which was to provide the bulk of its early supply. Serum’s travails have now become a key illustration of how the effort to inoculate against Covid has failed the developing world, and a cautionary tale for becoming over-reliant on one manufacturer amid a global crisis.

The shortages come as the WHO and public health experts warn that low levels of vaccination in poorer nations could fuel the emergence of dangerous variants and lengthen the global pandemic. Other manufacturers have also had trouble meeting targets or ramping up production of Covid shots, yet Serum’s shortfalls are particularly consequential because Covax and emerging countries were counting on it so heavily.

The company has been unable to send any shots overseas since April, when the Indian government banned Covid vaccine exports amid the country’s devastating second wave. But some of Serum’s problems began long before.

Last year, Serum’s chief executive officer, Adar Poonawalla, pledged that his vaccine producing colossus would churn out 400 million doses of AstraZeneca Plc’s coronavirus shot for low and middle-income countries by the end of 2020. A month into 2021, he said it had manufactured only 70 million shots because the company had been uncertain about when it would receive a license from India and didn’t have enough warehouse space.

A string of nations had also entered into direct contracts with Serum and are now racing to find new suppliers. In Nepal — which is struggling with a severe outbreak that’s even reached base camp of Mount Everest — the government says it’s received only half of the 2 million shots it ordered directly from Serum, based in the city of Pune in neighboring India. The rest were supposed to arrive by March.

“We are struggling with the shortage of vaccines,” said Tara Nath Pokhrel, the director of the family welfare division at Nepal’s health ministry.

In total, the nation of 28 million people says it’s received only 2.38 million doses: 1 million directly from Serum, another 1 million in grant aid from India, and the rest from Covax. Nepal had been expecting 13 million doses altogether from Covax. But those flows have dried up given Covax was relying heavily on Serum for supply and the Indian company is no longer exporting because of the government restrictions.

The decision to choose Serum as a major Covax supplier “was based, largely, on the company’s massive production capacity, ability to deliver at low cost and the fact that its vaccine was one of the earliest to gain WHO emergency use listing,” said Seth Berkley, chief executive officer at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which has been facilitating Covax and helping fund its orders.

Berkley says Serum’s manufacturing capacity is now expanding, which will help India. Still, Covax and many developing countries are scrambling to find new sources of vaccines after Serum said in recent weeks that exports are unlikely to resume until the end of 2021 given the needs of its overwhelmed homeland.

It’s a void that could potentially be filled by Chinese vaccine makers, with shots from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and Sinopharm Group Co. both recently approved for wider global use by the WHO. Bangladesh stopped giving out first vaccination doses after Serum’s supply shortages and then went on to halt its entire campaign. After the arrival of a limited supply of Chinese vaccines from Sinopharm, the South Asian country resumed inoculations for frontline and emergency workers, but is yet to start a mass vaccination program.

Billionaire Family

The situation Serum now finds itself in is a turnaround from a year ago. Then, its owners — the billionaire Poonawalla family, which founded the firm in 1966 to diversify their business away from race-horse breeding — were thrust into the global spotlight after agreeing to mass produce AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is called Covishield in India.

Adar Poonawalla in November talked about a third factory which would let it increase supplies [File: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg]

Serum had long been a supplier of measles and polio inoculations to the developing world and Adar Poonawalla, who became CEO in 2011, reveled in its position at the center of the historic Covid vaccine rollout. In late November, he talked about showing Prime Minister Narendra Modi a third factory at the company’s Pune headquarters which would soon allow the firm to crank out more than a billion Covid shots a year.

Yet, as circumstances shifted, so did Poonawalla’s projections in public forums and to the media.

In an interview in November, he said Serum was aiming to have 100 million doses ready in reserve by the end of December, just a quarter of the amount promised by the end of the year. In January, he lowered that even further to 70 million.

Poonawalla told Bloomberg in early January that the shortfalls were due to a lack of warehouse space to store the vials after slower than anticipated regulatory approvals in India. The company filed their application for an emergency license there in early December. Over recent months Poonawalla has also cited U.S. policies for some of his company’s problems, spearheading complaints against a de-facto American export ban imposed on some crucial vaccine raw materials.

Meanwhile, in January, a fire broke out at one of Serum’s plants. The manufacturer at first downplayed its impact and Poonawalla tweeted that the blaze wouldn’t slow production. But it led to losses of equipment and delays in putting on additional manufacturing lines, curbing expansion, according to a person familiar with the matter who didn’t want to be named discussing internal company business.

“Right now I think they are really, really stuck — that’s a major blow to Covax,” said Cleo Kontoravdi, a member of Imperial College London’s Future Vaccine Manufacturing Research Hub and Vaccine Research Network.

External Factors

Serum didn’t respond to a list of questions from Bloomberg, and a spokesperson said that Poonawalla wasn’t available for an interview.

Within the company, there is frustration over how production has been impacted, the person familiar with Serum’s operations said. One of the main reasons pledges weren’t fulfilled was because the global landscape for Covid vaccines kept changing, with shifts in India’s regulations, approvals and other government controls after each target was announced, the person said. The company’s hands were tied by India’s export ban and other government regulations, the person said.

As a devastating second wave spread across India, demand for vaccines shot up [File: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg]

There have been shortages in India as well. Initially, Serum’s supply challenges weren’t apparent there because the immunization campaign got off to a slow start. Modi’s government was also unclear on how much it would eventually order from Serum, leaving the company with little foresight as to how much capacity was needed.

India’s initial order sheet in January was parsimonious – just 11 million shots at first after Poonawalla attempted to publicly negotiate on pricing with the government. But as the second coronavirus wave swept across the country demand shot up, and supplies started to dwindle.

With its two main suppliers currently stretched, India is relying on a second round of homegrown and imported vaccines to ease that strain. Shots from Biological E., Cadila Healthcare Ltd. and Novavax Inc. may lead to a near three-fold scale-up of the rollout to 271 million doses a month by October, according to estimates from Investec Plc. Modi this week announced free vaccinations for all adults.

Serum isn’t the only vaccine maker that’s fallen short of its pledges. AstraZeneca was unable to meet promised targets to the European Union because of production issues. The other company supplying India’s rollout, Bharat Biotech International Ltd., has also only provided about 27 million of a promised 1 billion annual doses of its shot. Russia, which only started shipping batches of Sputnik V to India last month, had said it could begin delivering an order of 100 million doses by December last year.

“All of them have over promised and that trend continues,” said Malini Aisola, the New Delhi-based co-convenor of public health watchdog All India Drug Action Network said of the country’s vaccine makers. “The demand is so much greater than what the companies can manufacture.”

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Nic Dlamini is set to be first black South African at Tour de France




South African cyclist Nic Dlamini
Nic Dlamini is set to become the first black South African to ride the Tour de France

Nic Dlamini will make history at this year’s Tour de France by being the first black South African to compete in cycling’s most famous race.

The 25-year-old will be one of the eight riders for Africa’s only top-flight professional cycling team Qhubeka-Assos at the Tour, which runs from 26 June until 18 July.

He will be the only African on the team that will be jointly led by Australia’s Simon Clarke and Austrian Michael Gogl as well as including the Italian 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru.

“Being selected to ride in my first Tour de France is an absolute dream come true for me,” Dlimani said.external-link

“It’s always been an childhood dream and now that I’m about to live it makes it feel surreal.

“I think it speaks to what the team is about, the Ubuntu spirit [I am because we are], and how we change people’s lives because it is honestly a very special moment: to come from a small township and then to go to the Tour de France.”

He becomes the latest rider to progress from the South African-registered team’s development squad and onto the UCI WorldTour.

Humble beginnings

South African cyclist Nic Dlamini

The 25-year-old, who grew up in an informal settlement in Cape Town, first caught the eye as a runner before moving into cycling where his talents saw him move to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre Africa in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

“Considering where I come from it would simply have been impossible for me to have the opportunity to ride at the Tour de France if it wasn’t for Team Qhubeka-Assos,” he explained.

“The platform that they’ve provided me, and other riders from Africa, to compete at the highest level in cycling has been critical.

“I really hope that this will serve as a reference of hope and inspiration to many young South Africans, and people around the world, who have been working really hard to reach their dreams. My hope is that they take from this that anything is possible.

“I want to race the Tour to inspire more kids on Qhubeka bikes to follow in my footsteps and to experience the world like I have, for more kids in communities to put their hands up for bikes to work hard like I did, to dream big.”

According to the team “Dlamini’s style of racing will likely see his talents deployed in the offensive strategy the team will look to pursue during the race, while also playing a key supporting role in the flatter stages.”

The team is completed by Belgium’s Victor Campenaerts, Max Walscheid of Germany, debutant Sean Bennett of the USA and Colombian Sergio Henao.

Qhubeka-Assos’ team principal Douglas Ryder also hopes that Dlamini’s inclusion is a special moment.

“For Nic, what a moment though; his story is simply an incredible one and for him to have earned this opportunity shows that dreams really do come true, and for the team to have provided that opportunity makes me incredibly proud,” he said.

“He’s always been an individual that has stepped up and taken the opportunities that he’s fought for; and he does so again as he lines up at the startline in Brest on the sport’s biggest stage in front of the world.

“This will culminate in an incredible moment for him, South Africa and especially for our team.

“His selection speaks to everything about what we’ve created and built with this team through providing hope, an opportunity and then ultimately the platform to be on the biggest stage of all, the Tour de France.”

The only African rider to have worn the Tour de France leader’s famous ‘yellow jersey’ is Dlamini’s compatriot Darryl Impey, who wore it for two stages in 2013.

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In COVID hit Asia, mixed messages on refugee vaccinations | Coronavirus pandemic News




Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a deserted island off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh Province.

The refugees had been at sea for more than 100 days, having left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in a rickety wooden fishing boat, and were spotted huddling on uninhabited Idaman Island by local fishermen who used the island as a rest stop between fishing trips.

By June 5, just a day after their arrival, all 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The refugees were vaccinated in conjunction with the local government,” Nasruddin, the humanitarian coordinator of Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO which provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.

“When we found them, they were in a crisis situation on the island with no food, water or electricity, so local residents brought them food and we also brought them 50 tanks of water,” he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we needed to share our vaccines with the refugees in order to protect them as well. No one complained that the vaccines were being given to refugees.”

Aceh Province has been widely praised by humanitarian groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers have not been so lucky.

Hard line

When Nasruddin assessed the 81 refugees on Idaman Island, they told him that they had wanted to go to Malaysia. Some had family members who were already living there, while others were under the impression that the country had a more liberal policy towards refugees than its neighbours.

Some of the Rohingya refugees who arrived in Aceh earlier this month. They told NGOs that they had wanted to go to Malaysia because they had family there or thought it would be more welcoming to refugees than other countries in Southeast Asia [Cek Mad/AFP]

But like most countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and while the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also taken a hard line on undocumented migrants and refugees, including Rohingya.

“In February, the cabinet decided that in the interest of pandemic recovery all foreigners would receive vaccination free of charge, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” Lilianne Fan, the co-founder and international director of Geutanyoe Foundation who is based in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.

“The COVID-19 Immunisation Task Force and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin as coordinator of the vaccination programme, have been vocal advocates of this approach.

“However, the recent statement of the minister of home affairs that those without valid documents should not be vaccinated, combined with renewed crackdown on undocumented migrants, contradicts the government’s earlier position and will simply drive more people into hiding and slow down Malaysia’s pandemic recovery.”

Malaysia went into its second strict lockdown at the beginning of June after cases of coronavirus surged – stretching hospitals and intensive care units to the limit. The health ministry announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.

The government has indicated that it will ease the lockdown as more people are vaccinated, and Khairy has consistently stressed that the programme will include everyone living in the country.

But as it did during last year’s first lockdown, Malaysia has once again stepped up operations against undocumented migrants.

Malaysia’s Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has declared that PATI – the acronym for undocumented people in the Malay language – will be detained and sent to immigration detention centres.

This month, he stressed that undocumented migrants had to “surrender” before they would be vaccinated.

In early June, a video from state news agency Bernama showed 156 undocumented migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia’s international airport, after they had been detained.

Last week the immigration department shared a post on its Facebook page – styled like a poster for an action movie – with the headline “Ethnic Rohingya migrants are not welcome”. After an outcry, but not before it had been widely shared among refugee communities, it was deleted.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia on Monday expressed concern at “recent statements portraying migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to the safety and security of the country and a risk to the health of Malaysians” and urged the government to rethink its approach.

“Instilling fear through threats of arrests and detention of undocumented foreigners is counterproductive in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve herd immunity,” it said, stressing the clear differences in the situations of migrant workers, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Malaysia closed its borders during the first strict lockdown last year when immigration officers carried out a number of raids on areas under ‘enhanced’ lockdown. Rights groups fear more raids will deter people from coming forward for the vaccine that is crucial to Malaysia ending the COVID pandemic [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Rohingya made up about 57 percent of the 179,570 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia at the end of May.

Unofficial estimates suggest the country may have as many as three million undocumented migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Widespread problem

The mixed messaging on vaccinations for refugees is not exclusive to Malaysia.

In a statement released in early June, the UN refugee agency warned that a shortage of vaccines in the Asia Pacific region was putting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers at risk.

“Refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in the statement.

There are almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, making it the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world. According to Mahecic, the number of COVID-19 cases in the camps has increased dramatically in the last two months.

As of 31 May, there had been more than 1,188 confirmed cases among the refugee population, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone.

None of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar has yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mahecic added that, in many countries in the Asia Pacific region, there were not enough vaccines to go around, leading to groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers being sidelined.

The UNHCR had observed a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.

Indonesia, at least, appears to be starting to do more to address the problem.

The UNHCR says COVID-19 has begun to accelerate in the crowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, but no Rohingya living there have been vaccinated [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Other parts of the country have started to follow Aceh’s lead, according to the IOM, which vaccinated more than 900 refugees in the Indonesian city of Pekanbaru in Riau Province in early June in collaboration with the local government.

“IOM applauds the response of the City Government of Pekanbaru for making vaccines available to the refugee community in the city,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, the national media and communications officer of IOM Indonesia told Al Jazeera, adding that all refugees in the city over the age of 18 have now received vaccines.

“Vaccines are one of our most critical and cost-effective tools to prevent outbreaks and keep individuals and therefore entire communities safe and healthy,” she said.

“The virus knows no borders or nationality; and neither should our solidarity.”

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Why Ethiopia’s 'alphabet generation' feel betrayed by Abiy




PM Abiy Ahmed swept to power after mass protests, but his Oromo community still feel like outsiders.

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