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'Centre's Silence Criminal': Why TN's Billion-Dose Vaccine Facility is Idle

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

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COVID-19
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At a time when the clamour for vaccines is getting louder, an ambitious state-of-the-art public sector vaccine manufacturing plant in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, has been lying idle for almost five years.

This facility, capable of making one billion doses annually, has not produced even a single vaccine till date.

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The Integrated Vaccine Complex (IVC) wears a deserted look.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

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Meant to Be Nodal Centre for Cost-Effective Vaccines

Plagued by staff shortage, wage arrears and financial troubles, the Integrated Vaccine Complex (IVC) wears a deserted look.

In 2012, it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that gave the nod for the IVC to be set up on a 100-acre campus at Chengalpattu, an hour’s drive from Tamil Nadu's state capital, Chennai.

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

Plan showing the sprawling 100-acre IVC campus.

(Photo: HLL Biotech)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The IVC has been lying defunct since the production was completed in 2016. 

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

Deserted roads of IVC.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

The IVC was set up by HLL Biotech (HBL), a 100 percent subsidiary of public sector undertaking (PSU) HLL Life Care, and was meant to be the nodal centre for manufacturing, research and supply of vaccines at affordable prices under the Universal Immunisation Programme of the Government of India.

The facility was initially established to produce regular vaccines like Liquid Pentavalent Vaccine (LPV), Hepatitis-B-Vaccine, Haemophilus Influenza Type B, Rabies Vaccine, Japanese Encephalitis E Vaccine, BCG Vaccine and Measles-Rubella Vaccine, with a total capacity of 585 million doses.

When the project was first conceived, there were massive protests from locals who feared it would spread deadly viruses. The Quint spoke to locals in the area who said they have not seen the facility work.

What is Plaguing the IVC?

The cost of setting up the IVC was estimated to be Rs 600 crore, but there were massive overruns. The project had escalated the cost of the IVC from Rs 594 crore in 2013 to Rs 710 crore in 2017, and then finally to Rs 904 crore in 2019. The Central government has reportedly not approved the escalated costs.

Ironically, the Centre has been pre-booking vaccines from private manufacturers at high costs when this facility could work out as a cost-effective option.
Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

Plagued by staff shortage, unpaid wages and financial troubles, the Integrated Vaccine Complex (IVC) wears a deserted look.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The cost of setting up the IVC was estimated to be Rs 600 crore, but there were massive overruns.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The equipment required to manufacture rabies vaccine is ready to be utilised but is lying idle.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 6 May, seeking his intervention in handing over the assets of the IVC to the state government on lease to help mass produce COVID-19 vaccines.

“The state government will identify a suitable private partner immediately and will make all efforts to commence vaccine production at the earliest. A suitable financial arrangement for the central government to recover a part of its investment can be subsequently worked out, after the commencement of operations,” the letter read.

We don't understand why the central government can't set aside Rs 300 crores and start production at the facility. The Centre is not keen to hand this over to the state and wants to probably hand it over to a private firm for personal gains.
Kannan, Former Employee & Chengalpattu District Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)
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Production & Supply Can Commence in 3 Months: Experts

Experts suspect that due to technology compatibility issues, the IVC cannot straight away manufacture COVID vaccines.

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

Viral vaccine steriliser that has been set up in the Integrated Vaccine Complex. 

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The Integrated Vaccine Complex is spread out on a 100-acre campus.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Employees who quit their jobs last year, told The Quint that three of the units are ready for production of COVID vaccine immediately and another four units can be put to use with a bit of upgradation.

“The central government’s inaction is criminal. The IVC needs to be taken over by the state as a partner in a joint venture. The infrastructure and machinery is ready. We have ample virologists, scientists and technicians in the country, especially in Tamil Nadu. But the testing process for the particular vaccines need to be done to kickstart production,” said D Thomas Franco, joint convenor of People First, a forum for saving PSUs.

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The table shows the proposed potential of the vaccine manufacturing.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Former employees told The Quint that production can commence within three months, if all the clearances are given. Senior health officials, working closely with the TN government, said that there is no dearth of skilled staff in the state. An animal house, meant to do trials, is not being utilised, said a former employee.

“Right now, we are all not worried about the costs but more so about the availability of vaccines. The government should create a mechanism by which they can rope in Bharat Biotech to help set up the equipment specific for the production of these vaccines and a royalty fee can even be paid for each vaccine. Or the government can just rope in a few scientists who can do the diagnosis and set up everything that is necessary in a matter of one to two months,” said Dr. P Kuzhandaisamy, former Public health director of Tamil Nadu.

"Every 20 days, the Centre allots 2.5 lakh doses of the COVID vaccine to Tamil Nadu. Imagine how ahead we could be with 6.5 lakh doses everyday. And this would be the most useful to the country that is already panicking over a possible third wave."
Kannan, Former Employee & Member of Chengalpattu District Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)
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Employees in the Lurch With Low, Irregular Pay

The financial crunch seems to have only worsened since 2019. The staff strength of 250, that includes scientists and labourers, has been reduced to 90. The security personnel and the housekeeping staff, who are on contract, haven’t been paid salaries for months.

Most of the core team has migrated to other places in search of better opportunities or have become unemployed during the pandemic.

HLL Biotech Limited (HBL), had admitted in 2020 that it had a sanctioned staff strength of 408 posts, of which 251 are vacant. It also had said that the facility was yet to start manufacturing vaccines, due to which, it incurred a loss of Rs 96.25 crore between 2013 and 2019.

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The warehouse at the Integrated Vaccine Complex in Tamil Nadu's Chengalpattu.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The warehouse at the Integrated Vaccine Complex in Tamil Nadu's Chengalpattu.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

K. Palaniswami, vice-president of the Chengalpattu District Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the trade union wing of the CPI(M), told The Quint that only maintenance work is going on at present at the complex on borrowed money.

The Thiruvananthapuram-based HLL Life Care is itself going through the process of disinvestment, as the government wants to sell its entire stake in the PSU through an auction process. It has been struggling to pay salaries to staff, interest to lenders and clear vendor dues.

“When they envisioned this project, they called it a Project of National Importance. But today, the facility is only producing hand sanitisers to a minimal extent and most days close to none,” said Palaniswami.

In 2019, when the workers weren’t receiving any income, the trade union took the case to the TN High Court, which ordered that the salaries be paid in full. However, the company appealed, referring to their financial limitations, and offered a fixed salary of Rs 10,000 for workers who were earning Rs 15,000-25,000 earlier and Rs 25,000 for scientists who were earning up to Rs one lakh.

“Workers are starved for a decent income. At this time of the pandemic how can they quit a job in a government company? I don’t want even a record of us talking because that could risk my job and I could lose this petty money that I am receiving,” said a worker, who didn’t want to be named.
Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

Bacterial formulation units at the Integrated Vaccine Complex (IVC) at Tamil Nadu's Chengalpattu.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The cooling tower  at the vaccine manufacturing facility at Tamil Nadu's Chengalpattu.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

“Every day politicians talk about the direct and indirect employment potential of a venture. Then, imagine the jobs a facility that can manufacture millions of doses everyday, can generate,” said Palaniswami.

Two former employees who head the trade union told The Quint that they were forced to quit and look for petty jobs as all their employee benefits such as housing, medical insurance, rent allowance and daily allowances were cancelled.

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Potential to Roll Out 2 Crore Vaccines Every Month

The looming question is — Why haven’t private players like Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech jumped in to use the facility, if it has operational readiness to produce one billion doses annually?

On 9 January 2021, Harsh Vardhan visited the IVC, accompanied by the then Tamil Nadu Health Minister C Vijayabaskar and Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan.

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The raw water and treatment plant at Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu's Tamil Nadu.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The rabies culture unit at Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu's Tamil Nadu.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

A week later, on 16 January — the same day on which COVID-19 vaccination was rolled out across the country — HBL invited vaccine manufacturers to use the facility and some interested companies even visited the facility for an on-site assessment.

Experts said, a private firm would need to do a lot to get the plant up and running and the facility has to go through WHO GMP (Good Manufacturing Practises) checks before commencing production.

Between October 2019 and November 2020, six Tamil Nadu politicians — DMK MPs Dayanidhi Maran, S. Senthil Kumar and G. Selvam, PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss and CPI(M)’s current MP P.R. Natarajan and former MP T.K. Rangarajan — wrote to Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on the Chengalpattu IVC issue. In April 2020, a plea was even filed in the Madras High Court to involve the IVC in containing coronavirus.

If this is done in another four months then the first round of vaccine doses can roll out, which is about two crore vaccines per month. In another six months, the production can be increased and about 50 crore doses per year can be manufactured.
Kalanidhi Veerasamy, Chennai-North MP
Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

An animal house, meant to do trials, is not being utilised.

(Photo Courtesy: Accessed by The Quint)

Sources told The Quint that HLL Biotech floated a tender in March, inviting vaccine manufacturers to use the facility. Bharat Biotech had visited the facility in June and showed some inclination, but the company refused to make any comment.

Dr. P Kuzhandaisamy explained the hesitation, “Bharat Biotech is keen to partner with the Union and state government in a joint partnership. and not just the Centre. They don't want to take any chances and want to make sure they have a good rapport with the state government.”

“Honestly, this facility can be handled by the state government. If someone has doubts about the capability of the government, then Bharat Biotech can be a 10% stake partner and help in facilitating everything,” he added.

The article will be updated with the response from Union Minister Harsh Vardhan, when The Quint receives it.

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'India & TN Should Work Towards Vaccine Independence' 

Senior health officials suggested that the Centre acquire the patent for COVAXIN, developed using Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) funds and even look for options to manufacture other vaccines like Sputnik V as Tamil Nadu needs at least 15 lakh vaccines immediately.

Tamil Nadu accounts for the highest number of fever cases in the country, of which many are yet to be investigated, senior health officials raised concern.

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The 110KV power station at the Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu.

(Photo Courtesy: Accessed by The Quint)

Plagued by cash crunch, the state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu remains defunct.

The inoculation room and testing lab at the Integrated Vaccine Complex at Chengalpattu.

(Photo Courtesy: Accessed by The Quint)

“We need to have diagnostic independence, capability to manufacture vaccines and we should be equipped to handle any biological crisis. This facility is your one solution for all these three aspects, but our government has failed to look into this.”
Dr. P Kuzhandaisamy, Former Public Health Director of Tamil Nadu

While ICV needs immediate government intervention, another 300-acre Medi Park, adjacent to the project and the Kings’ Institute that was manufacturing vaccines earlier but has now been disallowed, have great potential to help us during this crisis but are lying defunct.

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