MUMBAI: The head of the world’s largest vaccine maker said on Friday it was “unethical” to give third doses of the Covid-19 vaccine while developing nations are struggling to access first and second jabs.

Adar Poonawalla, billionaire chief executive of Serum Institute of India, spoke out as he announced a $4.9 billion deal to take a 15 percent stake in a rival pharma firm, allowing vaccine production to be ramped up.

Israel was the first country to recommend Covid-19 booster doses in July and several European nations have since followed, targeting high-risk groups.

The United States, which is suffering rising coronavirus cases, is expected to roll out booster doses from next week.

“It’s unethical to start giving three doses to somebody when others in certain countries and populations have not even got two doses,” Poonawalla told reporters.

He added it was “not right” to roll out booster shots when poorer countries have “not been able to get the vaccines purely because the rich nations have taken away most of the vaccines”.

Serum Institute is currently producing 160 million doses of Astra-Zeneca’s Covishield each month, but Poonawalla said this would go up to 200 million next month.

Despite India’s export ban because of shortages that have hit the domestic vaccination drive, he said he expects restrictions will “slowly ease in the next month or two”.

He acknowledged that “some very vulnerable sections” could benefit from booster shots, but added: “There is no evidence to say so far that Covishield requires a third dose.”

Serum Institute is taking a stake in fellow pharma billionaire Kiran Mazumdar Shaw’s Biocon Biologics.

Under the deal, Biocon will be able to manufacture and sell 100 million vaccine doses annually — including Covishield and Covavax, Serum’s Novavax vaccine for children, currently undergoing trials.

Poonawalla said both companies were ramping up research for a potential new-style messenger RNA vaccine, similar to Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 products.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2021

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