Five people died as a fire tore through a building in the world's biggest vaccine manufacturing hub in India yesterday, but the company insisted the production of drugs to counter the coronavirus pandemic would continue.
Rescue workers discovered five bodies in the under-construction building after the blaze at the Serum Institute of India was brought under control, media reports said, with officials in the western city of Pune confirming the toll.
A second, smaller blaze broke out in the same building late yesterday, local media reports said.
"Five people have died," city mayor Murlidhar Mohol told reporters.
TV channels showed thick clouds of grey smoke billowing from the sprawling site, which is responsible for producing millions of doses of the Covishield coronavirus vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
"It is not going to affect production of the Covid-19 vaccine," a Serum Institute source told AFP, adding the blaze was at a new facility being built on the 100-acre (40-hectare) campus.
"We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed," the firm's CEO Adar Poonawalla tweeted, without offering further details.
Cyrus Poonawalla, Adar's father and founder of the institute, said in a statement that the families of each of the five victims -- who were reported to be contract labourers -- would be given 2.5 million rupees ($34,200) in compensation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi added he was "anguished by the loss of lives".
Both police and the company said the cause of the blaze was not immediately known.
The complex where the fire broke out is a few minutes' drive from the facility where coronavirus vaccines are produced, reports said.
Up to nine buildings are under construction at the complex to enhance Serum's manufacturing capability, NDTV reported. The fire is believed to have started because of an electrical fault, it added.
Globally, at least 2,075,698 people have died of the virus since it first emerged in China in late 2019, according to a tally compiled by AFP yesterday based on official figures. The US has suffered the highest death toll with 406,162 fatalities, followed by Brazil with 212,831 and India 152,869.
Serum Institute -- founded in 1966 -- is the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, producing 1.5 billion doses a year even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
It makes vaccines against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella, which are exported to more than 170 countries.
The company has spent nearly a billion dollars in recent years enlarging and improving the giant Pune campus.
In January, Indian regulators approved two vaccines -- Covishield, produced by the Serum Institute, and Covaxin, made by Indian firm Bharat Biotech.
India began one of the world's biggest vaccine rollouts on Saturday, aiming to vaccinate 300 million people by July with both Covishield and Covaxin.
Many other countries are also relying on the Serum Institute to supply them with the vaccine. The country plans to offer 20 million doses to its South Asian neighbours, with Latin America, Africa and Central Asia next in line.
Serum Institute also plans to supply 200 million doses to Covax, a World Health Organization-backed effort to procure and distribute inoculations to poor countries.
In Europe, leaders, facing threats of new coronavirus variants, were mulling for imposing travel restrictions on internal borders to stop the spread.
The chiefs will hold a summit -- by videolink to protect themselves from infection -- to address "the seriousness of the situation with the new variants," an EU official said.
Virus mutations spreading from Britain, South Africa and Brazil have alarmed EU authorities because of their increased infectivity, prompting bans or restrictions on travellers from those countries.
Now calls are increasing to shut the intra-EU borders to slow their spread, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday said that such a step would be "the last resort".