The Centre has signed a contract with SII for the supply of 11 million doses of Covishield, the Indian variant of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the novel coronavirus.

“An emotional moment for the team at Serum Institute of India as the first shipments of Covishield finally leave for multiple locations across India,” tweeted Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII). From the early hours of Tuesday till mid afternoon, Serum Institute was able to release at least half of the 11 million doses of vaccines to various locations across the country.

To mark the occasion, several employees of SII gathered together at the Serum campus as Poonawalla met them, and photographs were taken to record the moment. Speaking with a few select TV channels, Poonawalla said that it was a proud and historic moment. In the brief interaction, Poonawalla said that the real challenge was in taking the vaccine to the “common man, vulnerable groups of people and healthcare workers’.

The Centre has signed a contract with SII for the supply of 11 million doses of Covishield, the Indian variant of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the novel coronavirus.

Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman of the Poonawalla Group, which includes SII, had told The Indian Express that a bigger order was expected next week. SII authorities said that the special price of Rs 200 per dose was given to the Union government for the first lot of 10 crore doses.

Early on Tuesday morning, three temperature-controlled trucks rolled out of the Serum Institute gates and left for Pune airport. By mid-afternoon, half of the 11 million doses of vaccines had been released, according to SII authorities. “It has indeed been a moment of pride for all of us,” Executive Director of SII, Dr Rajeev Dhere, told The Indian Express.

“From the engineering team to the scientific experts, quality control checks, warehousing department and eventually dispatch of the vaccines, all of it has been an example of great teamwork and leadership,” said Dr Dhere.

“All these… have been worth the effort,” said a SII official.

Scientists recalled the challenges that had to be faced during the lockdown, and working at 30 per cent capacity. SII has approximately 5,000 employees and nearly 1,000 were actively engaged in various departments related to work on the vaccine. With challenges such as canteen facilities not being available to working long hours every day with the constant risk of being infected while travelling during the peak of the pandemic, scientists said that it was the fastest-ever vaccine that has been developed and manufactured here.

Dr Prasad Kulkarni, executive director at SII who deals with clinical research, told The Indian Express that there were aggressive timelines that they had to meet. “There were several challenges but everyone rose to the occasion,” said Dr Kulkarni.

The vaccine cargo, loaded in trucks, left the Serum Institute premises located in Manjari, on the outskirts of Pune, at 5 am. These were taken to the Pune airport — a civil enclave with limited cargo capacity — and then loaded on to various aircraft. Before the trucks left for the airport, a puja was performed at the gate of SII by Pune Deputy Commissioner Namrata Patil.

A total of nine flights carrying 477 boxes of Covishield vaccine left Pune airport for nine different destinations on Tuesday. The nine destinations the vaccines were sent on Tuesday include Delhi, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Lucknow and Patna. The first flight to leave with the vaccine cargo was Pune-Delhi SpiceJet (SEJ8937) at 8.10 am, which reached Delhi at 9.50 am. The last flight to leave with the cargo was the Pune-Lucknow Indigo (IGO 882), which departed from Pune at 2.10 pm and reached Lucknow airport at 4.47 pm.

“All the work was done by the airport staff very efficiently, without any glitches. All the cargo that we received have been dispatched for the designated destinations. We have readied our staff for this important assignment and we will see it through successfully,” said Kuldeep Singh, Pune airport director.

Ajay Singh, chairman and managing director of SpiceJet, said that on day one, SpiceJet shipped 4 million doses of Covishield vaccine, weighing close to 11 tonnes, to eight different cities. “The first consignment of Covishield, consisting of 2,64,000 doses, was transported from Pune to Delhi on SpiceJet flight SG 8937. The flight took off from the Pune International Airport at 8.05 am and landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi at 10.15 am. As India gets ready for the biggest vaccination drive in its history, the SpiceJet family hopes and prays for a quick, complete and decisive victory in this fight against coronavirus,” he said.

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