Five killed in Serum Institute of India fire, Covishield vaccine production unaffected

Building has rotavirus, BCG labs; Covid vaccine units on nearby SII campus

Five people were killed after a major fire engulfed the three upper floors of a newly- constructed six-storey building inside one of the campuses of Serum Institute of India (SII), which is a key player in the global supplies of vaccines against the novel coronavirus disease.

SII CEO Adar Poonawalla told The Indian Express that the fire had caused “lots of damage”.

Poonawalla, who is currently abroad, had earlier said the fire had not impacted the production of Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine that Serum is manufacturing under licence.

“I would like to reassure all governments and the public that there would be no loss of Covishield production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies…,” Poonawalla said in a tweet before the five bodies were discovered.

He subsequently told The Indian Express that he was in a “state of shock” because of the deaths.

All the five dead were doing welding and air-conditioning jobs at the building, which had been completed recently. Two of them were from Uttar Pradesh, and one was from Bihar. The other two workers were local people. None of them was an employee of Serum India.

“We were doing the work of AC insulation on the fourth floor when we suddenly saw smoke rising. Within a few seconds, the smoke became so dense that we were unable to see anything. We ran towards the window and jumped out. I was badly hurt but I managed to save my life,” said 21-year-old Avinash Saroj, whose brother Bipin Saroj was among the five dead.

The lower floors of the building have laboratory facilities for SII’s rotavirus and BCG vaccines. The upper floors where the fire broke out were unoccupied. The production units and laboratories for the Covid-19 vaccine are located on another SII campus nearby.

Incidentally, the affected building was part of the facilities that Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited last month, when he came to see Serum’s vaccine-making processes.

Fire Brigade and police officers said the fire became big by feeding on inflammable material on the upper floors. “There was a lot of air conditioning material, including insulation material and objects used for fabrication. There were objects made from PVC, acrylic, plastic, plywood, and wood,” a Fire Brigade official said.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is scheduled to visit the Serum campus on Friday.

The fire began at some time between 1.45 pm and 2.15 pm, according to police and Fire Brigade officials, and was brought under control by 4.30 pm. At least ten fire tenders, four additional water tankers, and other equipment had to be deployed. More than 70 fire personnel were involved in the operation. Intense smoke could be seen coming out of the building from several kilometres away.

“The fire started on the fourth floor of a building named SEZ-3 and spread to the fifth floor. In a phased manner, we deployed over a dozen fire tenders and water tankers, hydraulic lifts etc, and initially succeeded in rescuing nine persons from the building. All of them were workers employed with a contractor who was working at the building,” Prashant Ranprise, the chief fire officer of Pune Fire Brigade, said.

“Because of the smoke, it was initially difficult to locate the source of the fire. The fire was brought under control around 4.15 pm. This was followed by an extensive cooling operation, in which water is used to reduce the temperature of the premises. The cooling operation ensures the fire does not start again,” he said

The bodies were discovered only after Fire Brigade personnel were able to enter the building.

Vivek Pradhan, factory manager at SII, said the building where the fire broke out housed a rotavirus laboratory facility. “There is no stock of Covishield at this place. The work of electric and pipe fitting was going on in the building in the upper floors,” he said.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Namrata Patil said an investigation would be ordered to ascertain the cause of the fire.

“After every such major incident of fire, an investigation is conducted. It will happen in this case too. There is loss of life and damage to property on the two floors of the building. As part of procedure, a case of accidental death, pending a probe into causes, will be registered. We will decide the course of legal action after getting findings of this preliminary probe,” she said.

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