Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in his Indian manufacturing plant and pledged to produce millions of doses of a coronavirus vaccine that does not it had been tested at the time.
“It was a calculated risk,” Poonawalla told CNN Business. “But I didn’t see the option at the time, to be honest. I felt like I would regret not committing one way or another.”
For his plan to work, Poonawalla first had to raise nearly $ 1 billion. And the lives of hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people on the planet were at stake, as the SII had pledged to hit the poorest countries. If the gamble was worth it, Poonawalla would save countless lives and be hailed as a hero during a period of historic upheaval. Your fabulously wealthy family could also become even richer by benefiting from meaningful treatment.
As the world gave Poonawalla its money, and its trust, things seemed to be going according to plan. The AstraZeneca vaccine received approval from UK regulators in December 2020, and Poonawalla became a household name in India.
But it soon became clear how badly Poonawalla had miscalculated the challenges of delivering millions of vaccines amid a single pandemic in a century.
His company’s ability to inoculate even its own compatriots was called into question earlier this year when a devastating wave of coronavirus hit India. It has also failed to live up to its commitment to deliver shots to other nations, the consequences of which have eroded its reputation and shed light on the dangers of relying so heavily on a single manufacturer.
From horse breeders to vaccine manufacturers
It’s easy to see why some of the biggest names in public health chose to trust Poonawalla.
Few manufacturers can come close to the scale at which SII it is capable of producing vaccines. The company, which was founded by Poonawalla’s father, Cyrus, 55 years ago, produces 1.5 billion vaccines each year for measles, rubella, tetanus and many other diseases. The jabs are mainly distributed to low-income countries. all over the world, including India. Poonawalla estimates that just over 50% of the world’s babies depend on the vaccines made for IBS.
The Poonawalla family charted an unusual path to becoming one of the world’s leading vaccine manufacturers. They have bred and raced thoroughbred horses since the 1940s, and over the past half century they have diversified into pharmaceuticals, financials, and real estate.
To prepare for the production of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Poonawalla said it spent $ 800 million buying chemicals, glass vials and other raw materials, in addition to increasing manufacturing capacity at its plant in the city of Pune, in the western India.
However, all of that happened before regulators approved the AstraZeneca vaccine. Had the trials for that vaccine been unsuccessful, IBS “would just be making batches and then end up throwing them away,” Poonawalla said.
Poonawalla, a business studies graduate from London’s University of Westminster, said SII was able to make that decision more quickly than many other companies as it is a family-owned business.
India’s Covid-19 tsunami
“I’ve always been a patriot of my country … and if my country needs my facilities first, I have to do what they say,” Poonawalla said. “There were no two ways to that.”
When asked why the global vaccine alliance decided to rely so heavily on one manufacturer, a Gavi spokesperson told CNN Business it had few options.
In early 2021, “very few vaccines were approved and available for deployment,” the spokesperson said, adding that it was “natural” for IBS to be contracted for early doses given its size.
But public health expert Jeffrey Lazarus said there were flaws in the plan.
“Trusting a manufacturer was a mistake, which is easier to see in hindsight,” said Lazarus, who heads the health systems research group at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.
Be held accountable
While Poonawalla cannot be held responsible for some of the problems that led to the vaccine launch stalled, chief among them, the massive outbreak in India, his detractors have questioned parts of his approach.
They note that Poonawalla has not delivered the number of hits that he initially promised, and they claim that he has not been transparent about how he has been using all the money he raised for the big vaccine push.
“There’s not much responsibility for where the money he raised went,” Malini Aisola, a co-convenor of the health sector watchdog, All India Drug Action Network, told CNN Business.
He also insists that he was realistic about his goals. “We always promise less,” Poonawalla told CNN Business, when asked if the company promised more than it could deliver.
According to AstraZeneca, the companies with which the drugmaker has sublicense agreements, including the SII, dictate their own prices.
IBS declined to comment on how much it has benefited from the vaccine efforts so far, but Poonawalla said it is a “very unreasonable and naive way of looking at the world” for people to expect companies not to benefit from the vaccine.
The SII also says that it has increased its production to 220 million monthly doses as of October.
SII is also expanding its partnerships, having signed an agreement with American biotech company Novavax to manufacture its Covid-19 vaccine, which is awaiting regulatory approvals. It is also partnering with the Russian Direct Investment Fund in the production of the Sputnik vaccine.