PUNE : Five workers were killed in a major fire that broke out at Serum Institute of India’s (SII) vaccine manufacturing plant at Manjari near Hadapsar here around 2.30pm on Thursday.
Pune police commissioner Amitabh Gupta told TOI, “Five charred bodies were found at the site. We are investigating the matter.”
Police said preliminary information revealed that the five were among workers hired by a contractor for some civil work, including electrical and pipe fitting jobs, on the sixth and topmost floor of the facility. After the fire brigade put off the blaze, the contractor reported that some of his men were missing and their bodies were found during a search.
SII announced Rs 25 lakh each to the families of the victims.
State health minister Rajesh Tope, who took an update of the incident from district collector Rajesh Deshmukh, told TOI, “Prima facie, welding work at the plant firing up installation material has been ascertained as the cause of the fire. I want to reiterate that the Covishield vaccine plant is far away from the site that caught fire. There are absolutely no losses of the Covid vaccine.”
Adar Poonawalla, owner and chief executive officer of SII, posted on his official Twitter handle: “We have just received some distressing updates; upon further investigation we have learnt that there has unfortunately been some loss of life at the incident. We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed.”
Poonawalla later told TOI, “The Rotavirus vaccine facility, where the fire broke out, was an additional manufacturing unit that got damaged in the blaze. Covishield production will not get affected, as our plant has multiple manufacturing units.”
Rotaviruses are the most common cause of diarrhoeal disease among infants and young children.
Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman and managing director of SII, said in a statement: “Today (Thursday) is an extremely sorrowful day for all of us at SII. Regrettably, there were losses of lives in the fire that broke out in our under-installation facility situated at the special economic zone at Manjari.”
He said, “We are deeply saddened and offer our condolences to the families of the departed. In this regard, we will be offering a compesation of Rs25 lakh to each of the (victims) family, in addition to the mandated amount as per the norms. We would like to extend our gratitude to everyone for their concern and prayers in these distressing times.”
On Thursday evening, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, who is also Pune’s district guardian minister, visited SII. “The Pune police commissioner has been told to conduct a thorough inquiry into the fire incident,” he said.
Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray also took an update about the incident from Poonawalla and would visit the fire-hit plant on Friday, a release issued by the former’s office said.
The blaze engulfed the building from the third to sixth floor. There were conflicting versions about whether the fire started from the third floor or the sixth. The authorities were verifying details, apart from the cause of the fire. A crowd of local residents and onlookers gathered around the facility, as plumes of thick smoke billowed out of the blaze-hit building.
Pune mayor Murlidhar Mohol told reporters at the site, “The charred bodies were found on the sixth floor during a search operation after the fire brigade personnel put off the blaze (following over two hours of struggle).”
Factory manager Vivek Pradhan said the fire broke out at the Rotavirus laboratory located on the third floor where a stock of BCG vaccine was stored. He said, “Some electrical and pipe fitting work was in progress. At least four workers engaged by a civil contractor, who were stuck on the terrace, were rescued by fire brigade personnel.”
Prashant Ranpise, chief fire officer of the Pune Municipal Commission, told TOI, “Most of the BCG vaccines were kept in an airtight glass cabin on the third floor. Our firemen found it tough to bring the blaze under control.”
District collector Rajesh Deshmukh took an update about the fire from SII executive director Suresh Jadhav.
SII is manufacturing Covishield in India. The vaccine is developed by UK’s Oxford University and British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical AstraZeneca. Covishield is among the only two vaccines granted emergency use approvals in India for a country-wide vaccination drive that was launched on January 16.