Pune, January 21:

At least five people were killed in a fire that tore through India’s Covid-19 vaccine producer Serum Institue of India in Pune on Thursday. The deaths were confirmed by state officials three hours after the fire engulfed the vaccine production unit.

“Four people were evacuated from the building but when it came under control, five bodies were found by our jawans,” Pune Mayor Murlidhar Mohol told news agency ANI.

The mayor added that the five people who died, were perhaps the workers at the under-construction building. “The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained but it is being speculated that welding, that was going on at the building, caused the fire,” Mohol said.

The state health minister Rajesh Tope said that the fire was caused by welding sparks at the construction site at the SII. “The inflammable material at the site aggrivated the fire,” Tope said.

As the smoke filled the building, authorities rushed and evacauted nine people trapped inside in the Serum Institute of India’s Manjari premises, police said.

SII CEO Adar Poonwalla said there would be no loss in vaccine manufacturing because the company has other available facilities.

“Thank you everyone for your concern and prayers. So far the most important thing is that there have been no lives lost or major injuries due to the fire, despite a few floors being destroyed,” Poonawalla tweeted.

Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest maker of vaccines and has been contracted to manufacture a billion doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine. Of the more than 12 billion coronavirus vaccine doses expected to be produced this year, rich countries have already bought about 9 billion, and many have options to buy even more. As a result, Serum Institute is likely to make most of the vaccines that will be used by developing nations.

The Manjari facility is where the Covishield vaccine used in the nationwide inoculation drive against the pandemic is made. The building where the fire broke out is part of the under-construction site of the Serum facility and is one km from the Covishield manufacturing unit, sources said.

“I would like to reassure all governments & the public that there would be no loss of #COVISHIELD production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies at @SerumInstIndia. Thank you very much @PuneCityPolice & Fire Department,” he added.

Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar said the state government has ordered a probe into the fire.

The fire, which broke out at 2.45 pm on the fourth and fifth floors of the SEZ 3 building in the Serum Institute premises, was brought under control in two hours, police said.

Viral visuals from the site showed smoke billowing out from the Serum Institute facility.

A fire brigade official said cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained.

A National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team was rushed to the spot, an official said.

Pune Police Commissioner Amitabh Gupta said all the people trapped inside the building where the fire broke out have been evacuated.

Chief Fire Officer Prashant Ranpise said cooling work has commenced at the spot. Nobody was injured in the fire, he added.

Fifteen water tankers were pressed into action and the fire was brought under control around 4.30 pm, he said.

“The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. Furniture, wiring, cabins were gutted. No major machinery or instruments were stored on the floors where the fire broke out,” he said.

“I have taken information from the Pune Municipal Corporation about the incident and an instruction has been given to carry out a detailed probe into the incident,” Ajit Pawar said.

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has asked the state machinery to ensure that the fire is brought under control, his office tweeted. He is in touch with the Pune Municipal Commissioner, the CMO added.