Fire warning: On Serum Institute blaze

The Serum Institute blaze highlights the need for zero tolerance safety protocols

The deadly fire in an upcoming production facility at the Serum Institute of India (SII), in Pune has sent shock waves because of the key role played by the company in producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield COVID-19 vaccine. Five workers engaged in construction have perished, and there are indications that expensive equipment has been destroyed. There is understandable concern about the accident at the SII building, which is located away from the Covishield unit, as the company, reputedly the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, is now an institution of global importance. It is scheduled to deliver several hundred million doses of Covishield to a host of countries, including less affluent nations depending on the COVAX initiative led by WHO to protect their populations and move towards normality. Such a position of indispensability for the Pune facility in the war against the pandemic casts upon India, Maharashtra and SII, the responsibility of ring-fencing vaccine production against all threats, including the one that normally gets low importance in India, which is fire safety. The initial assessment indicates that Thursday’s blaze may have been triggered by flammable materials set afire by sparks generated during construction work, trapping and asphyxiating workers. It is welcome that the company has offered a solatium to the families of the victims, who included migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but the bigger task is to convince the world that critical vaccine supplies are not jeopardised by lax safety protocols.

The storage and transport of vaccines, which are time and temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products, require special care, and COVID-19 has come as a wake-up call to governments to overcome supply bottlenecks and capacity constraints. Even the creation of new vaccine plants to meet future needs would be entirely justified. With a scramble for approved vaccines and inability to produce enough for all countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that bilateral deals were threatening the smooth rollout of the COVAX initiative. At close to 3 billion doses, it is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that forms the bulk of over 10 billion doses of different vaccines ordered so far. Clearly, Indian production is vital to meeting this demand. Pharmaceutical production must satisfy precision, quality and safety standards comparable to high-technology sectors such as defence and space. High standards of fire safety form the core of all manufacturing: WHO model guidance for pharma units emphasises the availability of site security, automatic fire detection systems, mechanical or manual ventilation, sprinkler systems and fire drills, among other aspects. Too often, safety during construction and operation suffers dilution due to cost considerations, with almost no fire awareness among workers. The Pune fire shows that lives and reputations depend on full adherence to good practice.

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