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Expansion of Bharat Biotech International’s Covaxin capacity is likely to take at least two months as the repurposing of its Bengaluru facility, which earlier made animal vaccines, is underway even as talks with Panacea Biotec to contract-manufacture the vaccine have just started, three people familiar with the development said. “It takes about four to six months to repurpose a plant to produce the inactivated vaccine. It is unlikely that they will be scaling up their production next month also. For Panacea, it could take about two to three months at least after it signs a contract manufacturing deal with Bharat to start producing Covaxin," one of the three people said.

Talks between Panacea Biotec and Bharat Biotech, which are at an early stage, started earlier this month following a nudge by the Department of Biotechnology, the person cited above said. The former is the only vaccine maker in India apart from Bharat Biotech with a biosafety level 3 production facility, crucial for making Covaxin, because it involves the cultivation of large batches of the highly infectious SARS-CoV2 before killing them.

So far, there have been two meetings between the companies, but no progress has been made on it since last week, the person said. Bharat Biotech’s own plan to repurpose its facility at Bengaluru to manufacture Covaxin is taking time and is likely to be completed only in about two months, if not more.

The indigenously developed vaccine is one of the two that are currently being used by the government in its covid-19 immunization drive, with the other being Serum Institute of India’s Covishield, a version of the vaccine originally developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca.

However, the supply of Covaxin has been severely hampered by production constraints as the company currently has an annual capacity of 200 million doses or roughly 16-17 million doses per month after the company had started another plant at its facility in Hyderabad’s Genome valley last month. In contrast, Serum Institute of India’s current capacity to manufacture Covishield is 60-70 million doses per month, far higher than that of Bharat Biotech.

Bharat Biotech has earlier said that the company plans to raise its capacity to 700 million doses per annum with the Bengaluru facility.

Apart from capacity constraints, Bharat Biotech is also facing problems with the supply of raw materials. At a press conference on 29 March, chairman and managing director Krishna Ella said that the company is facing a shortage of some raw materials that are imported from the US and Sweden due to restrictions by those countries.

Serum Institute also plans to scale up its capacity to raise its Covishield production capacity to 100 million by next month, a person close to the development said.

A spokesperson for Serum Institute declined to comment on the capacity expansion, while emailed queries sent to Bharat Biotech remained unanswered at the time of publishing. Panacea managing director Rajesh Jain declined to comment.

Meanwhile, India’s inoculation programme is racing much faster than vaccine production. As of Thursday morning, over 50 million doses have been administered across the country in April, roughly the same number as the total number of doses given in the entire month of March. Less than a tenth of the total vaccine doses administered are Covaxin while the rest of the inoculations are being done using Covishield.

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