Coronavirus: Deadly fire at Indian vaccine headquarters as European hospitals struggle to treat influx of patients

The Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, said on Thursday that production of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine would not be affected by a deadly fire at its headquarters in Maharashtra state.

Videos and pictures from Reuters partner ANI showed black smoke billowing from a multi-storey building in the SSI's massive complex in the city of Pune. The blaze, which police said killed five people, had been brought under control but not extinguished.

"We mourn the unfortunate demise of the 5 people," Pune's police department said on Twitter. We "will conduct a thorough screening of the premises once the fire is doused".

The Maharashtra government said the fire could have been caused by an electrical fault during construction work.

SII has licensed the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and was also planning to start stockpiling up to 50 million doses a month of a vaccine candidate developed by Novavax Inc from around April.

It's the latest setback in India's push to get the population vaccinated - its COVID-19 vaccination drive hit a bump on the first day due to glitches in an app called Co-Win that is being used to coordinate the campaign, according to several officials involved in the immunisation programme.

Co-Win, developed by the government, is supposed to help by alerting healthcare workers who are first in line to get shots, and by allowing officials monitor and manage the entire drive.

But many health workers, who were to receive the vaccines, did not get the message on Saturday, said a senior official with the health department of the western state of Maharashtra.

Overseas other countries are pushing vaccination too as hospital resources are stretched thin by the pandemic.

 At Milton Keynes University Hospital in England, it's a battle between life and death. For those most ill, death is gaining the upper hand.

The latest COVID-19 wave has hit the hospital northwest of London with even more force than the first: younger patients fill its wards and fewer of the sickest people respond to treatment.

Doctors and nurses are grappling with the strain of exhaustion and loss.

Joy Halliday, consultant in intensive care and acute medicine, is in charge of a high-dependency unit for COVID-19. It is a step down from an intensive care unit (ICU), and severely ill patients there are receiving CPAP oxygen.

Stephen Marshall, 68, is one of them. After testing negative for COVID-19 following a recent operation on his back, he initially thought he had a cold.

"I should never have left it, it's just made it worse," he said, speaking through a mask pumping oxygen into his lungs.

"I'm on oxygen all the time now," he said. "I seem to be holding my own at the moment, so touching wood," he added, lifting his hand to his head.

The youngest person in Halliday's eight-bed unit is 51-year-old supermarket worker Victorita Andries. She was put on oxygen immediately when she was admitted five days ago.

"The machine for me has been good," said Andries, adding that she felt positive about the future. The oxygen levels in her mask are gradually being reduced as her condition improves.

The youngest person being ventilated in the hospital is just 28.

It's a similar story in Portugal. Overwhelmed by record numbers of COVID-19 patients, doctors in Portuguese hospitals say they are exhausted and in despair, while the government ordered all schools and universities shut for 15 days from Friday to try to slow the contagion.

"We do not have enough human resources," said Guida da Ponte, deputy head of a doctors' union near Lisbon, adding that despite a lack of intensive-care beds, more could be set up, "but we don't have the professionals."

"Doctors are desperate. The word really is 'despair'."

The government has acknowledged that holiday-time contagion played a role, but blamed the increase in cases mostly on the new variant.

The daily death toll reached a record of 221 on Thursday, bringing the total to 9,686 since the start of the pandemic. The country of 10 million people reported 13,544 infections over the last 24 hours, below Wednesday's record of 14,647.

As cases rises, European Union leaders are looking at cracking down on travel to slow the spread. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before an evening leaders' video conference that European countries needed to take the new mutation found in Britain seriously to avoid a third wave.

"We can't rule out border closures, but want to prevent them though cooperation within the European Union," she told a news conference in Berlin.

Leaders, who have full control over their own borders, were discussing testing protocols for cross-border commuters, she added.