At least five persons suffocated to death in a major fire that engulfed an under-construction building in a plant of global vaccine giant, Serum Institute of India (SII), here on Thursday afternoon, triggering nationwide anxiety.
Health Minister Rajesh Tope and Pune Mayor Murlidhar Mohol announced that five persons, believed to be labourers, had perished in the blaze and their bodies were recovered during the sweeping and cooling operations.
As the state government ordered a high-level inquiry into the tragedy, another four persons were rescued safely from the blaze which erupted on two or three upper floors of the SII building which was being readied for a BCG vaccine plant.
Allaying nationwide concerns over the fate of the Covid-19 vaccines being manufactured by the company, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray held a press conference while SII CEO Adar Poonawalla issued a personal statement of reassurance.
"I would like to reassure all governments and the public that there would no loss of Covishield production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies at SII," Poonawalla said, seeking to quell anxieties among the company''s global clientele.
Thackeray discussed and reviewed the situation with top officials and said the SII had informed that the Covid-19 vaccine production was not affected in any manner, and the priority was to bring the blaze under control and save people.
Similarly, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, Health Minister Tope, FDA Minister Rajendra Shingne, and others spoke with the SII top brass to apprise themselves of the exact scenario.
Though sabotage has been ruled out, in view of the national and global concerns the tragedy evoked, Pawar said that a thorough probe would be conducted into the incident, while reiterating that the Covidshield line facility was unaffected.
Visiting the site, Shiv Sena workers'' wing Bharatiya Kamgar Sena''s General Secretary Raghunath Kuchik, accorded a MoS rank, termed the tragedy as "shocking and accidental" and hoped that there are no more casualties.
The fire, which broke out around 2.15 pm, was brought under control within three hours by a team of firemen and around a dozen fire tenders, while Mayor Mohol, PMC Commissioner Vikram Kumar, Collector Rajesh Deshmukh and other officials monitored the situation minutely.
Police Commissioner Amitabh Gupta, who rushed to the site said that the affected building was an upcoming SII facility for its BCG vaccines, scheduled to be operational in a month or so.
"The company has informed us that Covid-19 vaccine facility is at least one km away, and there is no cause for worry," Gupta told media persons, as the nation collectively heaved a sigh of relief.
As thick clouds of dark-grey smoke billowed out of the nearly-completed Manjari complex, social media went wild with speculation whether even stocks of the critical Covid-19 vaccines were snuffed out in the flames, but the clarifications by the SII and authorities scotched all rumours.
Police and fire brigade officers said that there was some welding work going on in the affected floors 4-5 of the building and a short-circuit is believed to be the tentative cause of the conflagration that sent nationwide panic waves.
The SII is currently under a global limelight after it ranked among a handful of pharmaceutical companies worldwide to notch success in developing and manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine (branded Covishield), currently being administered to millions in India.
SII officials said that the Covishield vaccine - jointly developed by AztraZeneca and University of Oxford - is produced and stocked at its Hinjewadi manufacturing facility, located several kms away from fire-ravaged unit in Manjari.
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