India’s billionaire prince of vaccines was the key to ending the pandemic. Your plans went wrong

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.

Cyrus Poonawalla is now the seventh richest man in India, worth more than $ 16 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His son Adar took over as CEO in 2011 and has focused on expanding into international markets.

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.

More than $ 250 million came from the company’s own funds. Another $ 300 million came from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which SII collaborated to provide free or discounted doses to low-income countries. The rest he paid other countries once the SII started accepting vaccine orders. In total, the SII agreed to make up to 200 million doses of vaccines for 92 countries, as part of its agreement with the Gates Foundation and Gavi, a vaccine alliance.

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 said it spent $ 800 million on materials, including chemicals and glass vials, to prepare for vaccine production.

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.

“The flexibility of being able to decide on the ground very quickly was really the main game changer that allowed us to be able to do this,” said Poonawalla, whose India office is a reformed one. Airbus A320.
After UK Regulators Approved the vaccine, Poonawalla began to supply doses to Indians and other countries. By May, Gavi had received some 30 million strokes from IBS.

India’s Covid-19 tsunami

But Poonawalla’s plans soon fell through when a second wave of Covid-19 hit India in the spring. At its peak, the country was reporting on 400,000 cases per day though experts they say the actual number was probably much higher.
At that point, just 2% percent of India’s 1.3 billion people were fully vaccinated, and the country’s national government had been slow to order more vaccines. Without a massive arsenal, the Indian states began to run out of the limited number of hits they had.
India then decided stop the export of all vaccines, preventing the SII from fulfilling its commitments elsewhere.
A brutal second wave of Covid-19 hit India in the spring of 2021.

“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.”

The inability to export vaccines hurts some of the poorest nations in the world. The director of the African disease control body, for example, warned that India’s withholding on exports could be “catastrophic“for the continent. People from various countries, from neighboring Nepal to Kenya, were stranded after receiving the first dose of Covishield, the name of the vaccine made in India.

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.

In June of last year, IBS got compromised would produce 1 billion doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for low- and middle-income countries, with 400 million doses ready by the end of 2020.
But by January 2021, the company had a reserve of only 70 million doses. His critics weren’t impressed, given the amount of capital he raised last year.
The IBS declined to comment on how much it has made from its vaccine production so far.  Poonawalla called him
Global media coverage also became unfavorable, with Headlines linking global vaccine shortages to IBS problems, including India’s export ban and a fire at the company’s Pune facility. At the time, Poonawalla said that the fire had without effect about Covishield’s production. But it has since reverse course, saying the incident has played a major role in hampering manufacturing.

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.

Still, he has been haunted by other controversies that have sapped his reputation. As India’s Covid-19 cases soared in April, Poonawalla lowered the price of its vaccine, referring to the move as a “philanthropic gesture“, Which generated strong criticism, with activists pointing out that even a small profit is still a profit for the SII.
“AstraZeneca has promised not get benefits from low- and middle-income countries during the pandemic, but that doesn’t seem to apply to SII, “Aisola said.

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.

While Poonawalla has yet to match his lofty goals, there is a chance he and SII could get back on track, which is critical to ending vaccine inequality around the world. India has decided to start exporting vaccines once again as its own inoculation rate increases. The nation had administered billion dose for October – approximately 90% of which came from the SII, according to the company.

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.

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