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Pune paradox: Why vaccine & virus research hub is among worst-affected by Covid

The Print logo The Print 25-04-2021 Angana Chakrabarti

Pune is a city of contrasts in the coronavirus pandemic. It is India’s Vaccine Central. It has a virology institute. But Pune is also among the worst-affected in Covid infections. It even reported a curious vaccine shortage just a fortnight ago.

a couple of people that are standing in the street © Provided by The Print

A stream of trucks started pushing out of the impenetrable, heavily guarded gates of the sprawling 42-acre Serum Institute of India (SII) plant early at Manjari on a recent morning. 

“Woh Serum hai. Wahan pe Covid ka dawai banata hain (That is Serum. There they make the medicine for Covid there),” a fruit vendor in Pune’s suburban Manjari area said, pointing to the grey buildings across the road, the heart of India’s Covishield vaccine production. It has become a household name now, especially in the past year.

SII’s early dive into manufacturing vaccines is, perhaps, evidence enough of the pivotal role that Pune city has played in the global fight against the pandemic. But that’s not all. Since Covid was first reported in India, the National Institute of Virology (NIV), a virus research centre run by the Indian Council of Medical Research, has played a pivotal role in testing. 

It has validated most of the country’s RT-PCR and rapid antigen tests, and also put out the country’s first electron microscopy image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Throughout the duration of the pandemic, it has released crucial studies about the virus, and now, it is among 10 laboratories that will conduct genome sequencing to better understand its various strains. 

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To a layperson, Pune, with its scientific institutions and industries, would seem like a perfect setting to be the best example of Covid management. But it isn’t so simple. Pune is like that candle that ‘can defy and define the darkness’, to borrow an Anne Frank phrase.

According to Maharashtra’s daily health bulletin, Thursday, Pune reported 13,219 cases — the second highest in the state after Mumbai. In both the first and the second wave of the pandemic, the city has been in the headlines for a high number of infections.

“It’s a pity that we have the best Serum Institute that produces the largest number of vaccines and we haven’t managed this well. I was just reading an article that Israel paid double the price to buy Pfizer vaccines, and ensured that they got the vaccines for… citizens over 18. We have messed this process and not made best use of this facility available in Pune,” said Anu Aga, former chairperson of Thermax, an energy and environment company, and Teach for India, who is based out of Pune.

A long tryst with diseases

Whatever Pune has going for it also appears to be going against it.

Long known as the refuge of the retired, Pune’s elderly population has meant that it can boast of a robust and responsive healthcare industry. On the flipside, it has also meant that it has the health infrastructure that contributed to early detection, testing, diagnosis, and perhaps the high numbers. Pune’s agreeable, moderate weather attracted senior citizens from around India to set up retirement communities, but the ‘not too hot, not too cold’ city is also a petri dish for the virus to multiply quickly among the dense population.

Many civil servants of the district like to point to its 150-year-long tryst with infectious diseases, starting way back in the 19th century with the plague. Pune, they say, for one reason or another has been susceptible to such diseases. 

Then, it is also one of the fastest-growing industrial and IT hubs, which has led to a large enough commuting population on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. 

But, on the ground, as the search for oxygen beds and remdesivir spikes, this fatalistic, or even the historical, perspective matters little.

One patient at a Pimpri-Chinchwad hospital had to sit on a chair while he was on oxygen supply, his family member said. There were no beds for him. He was later admitted to the 700-bed Jumbo Covid Hospital set up on the grounds of Pune’s College of Engineering. 

Vaccine shortage in vaccine hub

The city’s vaccine story, however, is a different one altogether.

SII’s Manjari plant is just one of two of the vaccine factories that the pharma giant runs in the city. The second one, in Hadapsar, is even more breathtaking, surrounded by CEO Adar Poonawalla’s majestic stud farms. Together, the two factories are producing 2.4 million doses of the Covishield vaccine a day. 

a box truck that is driving down the street: The SII plant at Manjari | Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint © Provided by The Print The SII plant at Manjari | Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint
And vaccines aren’t feared in this city. According to the CoWin portal, at least 20,27,970 people in Pune had received the first dose of the vaccine until Thursday, making it one of the highest performing Indian districts.

And yet, the city that sends Covishield to the world reported a vaccine shortage, not once, but twice last month. As stocks of the vaccines ran out in March, Covaxin was even made the lead vaccine for the first time in the district. More recently, stocks of the vaccines were so small that it would last only two days. 

Officials called it a demand-supply problem. The authorities were stumped by a sudden, overwhelming demand due to “political and industrial mobilisation”, a senior state official said on the condition of anonymity. Both Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the MP for Baramati in Pune, and the local chapter of the RSS mobilised a large number of people to get vaccinated in a very short period of time.

“When vaccination started, NCP’s Supriya Sule mobilised all her political workers to start getting the vaccination,” the official said. “Since they have a majority in many of the gram panchayats, they came in large numbers and the people we were expecting to vaccinate in three days, got vaccinated in one day.”

Manoj Pochat, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the RSS branch in Pune, confirmed to ThePrint that about 95 per cent of all the swayamsevaks eligible for the vaccine had been vaccinated.

Sudhir Mehta, the lead and coordinator of the Pune Platform for Covid-19 Response (PPCR), a volunteer group, and president of the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA), also said 75-80 per cent of people who work in the region’s industries and are eligible have gotten the first jab.

There is a rush to embrace the drive, not seen in many other places. So shortages aren’t accepted easily either.

“Initially people started believing that since we are producing the vaccine in Pune we should have the first right,” Pune Divisional Commissioner Saurabh Rao told ThePrint last week. 

“But what they fail to understand is that things work in a more formal way, and vaccines don’t directly come to the centres from Serum Institute. There is a process that is universal for all districts across the country.”

The distance between the vaccine manufacturing plant and pandemic management can’t be measured in kilometres.

Pune, like every other district until last week, would get its stock of vaccine doses only after prior approvals from the central government. The Centre would place orders with the vaccine manufacturers SII and Bharat Biotech (for Covaxin) and decide the number of doses going into each state. 

But now the Narendra Modi government has decided to allow states to procure vaccines and administer them according to their local needs and realities.

Pune & its scientific community

A fair question to ask is whether the scientific community in Pune has played any role in helping the district manage the Covid situation.

The answers vary. 

Dr Subhash Salunkhe, the state adviser on Covid-19, told ThePrint, “Some of our senior bureaucrats have visited NIV, raised pertinent questions right from the beginning. There were a lot of issues brought out, related to the virus and virus multiplication. Now we are planning to get the inputs from them as far as the mutation is concerned.”

Vikram Kumar, the Pune Municipal Corporation Commissioner, said, “IISER, NIV are often invited to district task force meetings for advice. IISER also did a serosurvey, which was sponsored by the district task force..[NIV too] is contributing, we often discuss the virus and the spread.”

When asked what they have told the city authorities about the possible mutation driving the second wave, Kumar, however, said, “They haven’t told us, they’re in touch with the central government about this.”

Pune-based journalist Vinita Deshmukh said the scientific community here rarely goes beyond its research. “I haven’t ever heard a scientific voice express concern, but you have various doctors, NGOs who voice their opinions.”

Dr Mahesh Zagade, a former municipal commissioner of Pune and former principal secretary, Maharashtra, said, “You can’t really say that they’re interacting, they will be interacting through their seniors in Delhi, and it’s not wrong also. 

“Red-tapism” limits the kind of interaction between the institute and the state and Pune district, said Avinash Bhondwe, former president of the Indian Medical Association, Maharashtra. 

“They have never come out with an official statement about the new variants. It always comes through the ICMR and the Ministry of Health,” he added. 

a sign on the corner of a street: The premises of NIV-Pune | Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint © Provided by The Print The premises of NIV-Pune | Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint
That explains the Pune Paradox. The city just happens to be the pin code for the scientific institutions and industry. It doesn’t guarantee Pune to automatically become the poster-city for pandemic management.  

“The policymakers are in Delhi, NIV is just a geographical location,” Zagade added. “They could be anywhere but it is a federal structure, they are being run from Delhi, otherwise it would create chaos.”

ThePrint reached NIV-Pune director Dr Priya Abraham over WhatsApp for comments on this report. The report will be updated with her response.

With additional reporting by Manasi Phadke. 

Follow the government's latest guidance on safeguarding yourself during the coronavirus pandemic, including travel advice within and outside the country. The World Health Organization has also busted some myths surrounding coronavirus. The Ministry of Health's special helpline is available at +91-11-23978046, ncov2019@gmail.com and ncov2019@gov.in.

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