How the world’s largest vaccine maker struggled to seize the moment
The coronavirus pandemic aimed to propel the Serum Institute of India and its managing director Adar Poonawalla from an obscure drugmaker to a global vaccine savior.
Poonawalla, the suave billionaire “vaccine prince” who took over the business from his father Cyrus 10 years ago, has embraced the spotlight, touting his company’s role at the forefront of the global vaccine race.
Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, visited the Serum factory last year as a sign of approval and in January donated millions of doses of his Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries as part of the a diplomatic campaign aimed at competing with China and demonstrating its country’s pharmaceutical power.
But four months later, Poonawalla faces a toll as India staggers under a second wave of brutal infections. Despite the warning that it would take until 2024 to vaccinate the world, his company has been vilified for allegations of rising prices and its inability to meet its demands for vaccines abroad. His decision to scramble to his London mansion before the UK bans flights from India is doomed across his home country.
The Serum Institute has also been hit by lawsuits from global governments for failing to honor contractual supply agreements, while Poonawalla said threats have been made against it. The Indian government provided him with security guards.
Poonawalla has also been blamed for only 2% of India to have been fully vaccinated. But he stressed that the government had not placed enough orders before the second wave. “I’m just a manufacturer,” he told the Financial Times after claiming he was “the victim” of the stuttering vaccination campaign. “I do not decide these policies.”
He admitted, however, that he “must have grown thicker skin”.
“History will have to judge the work the company has done, and whether we have benefited from it here, or whether we have served the nation,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the Serum Institute made millions of vaccines given to more than half of the world’s children.
Poonawalla divided her time between the company’s headquarters in Pune and its $ 113 million oceanfront art deco palace in Mumbai, once owned by the Maharajas, punctuated by vacations in Italy and France.
His wife Natasha, who is the executive director of the Serum Institute, has a Instagram account with nearly 600,000 subscribers who showcases images of celebrating with luxury shoe designer Christian Louboutin and walking the red carpet at the Met Gala.
The pandemic shattered this life. Poonawalla has embraced the crisis and invested in Covid vaccines to prove that his company can immunize the masses affordably, compared to its Western competitors.
It has also opened a sales office in London, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announcing that the Serum Institute will invest £ 240million to support testing, research and possibly manufacturing in the UK.
But the company’s reputation has come under scrutiny as India suffers from a vaccine shortage. Covax, the UN-backed vaccine alliance, expected to receive more than 100m vaccines from the Serum Institute between February and May, but received only 19.8 m doses, excluding India.
Sajjan Jindal, chairman of industrial conglomerate JSW and one of the country’s biggest tycoons, said Poonawalla should have done more to work with the government and boost vaccine production.
Jindal accused Poonawalla of using “some sort of ransom language” to obtain public subsidies and invest in the UK rather than India. “If I were him. . . I would agree with the government, I would support the government and I would do my part in times of crisis, ”he said.
Others criticized him for traveling to London as India battles the devastating second wave of the virus.
Poonawalla denied having fled and said he was in the UK on “regular” business. He also said the company had received “all kinds of support” from the Indian government.
Poonawalla was educated in the UK at St Edmund’s School in Canterbury and graduated in Business Administration from the University of Westminster. He met his wife at a New Years party in Goa, where they used to attend bashes hosted by Vijay Mallya, the fallen Kingfisher liquor baron.
The family’s wealth and its introduction to high society rested on the ambition of Poonawalla’s father. In 1966, Cyrus, passionate about horse racing wearing fedora and smoking cigars, began the transformation of his stud into a global manufacturer of vaccines.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the Serum Institute gained approval from the World Health Organization to export vaccines to developing markets, that the company gained an international reputation.
When Poonawalla became CEO in 2011, a year after his mother Villoo passed away, he focused on expanding, diversifying the vaccine portfolio and investing in research.
At the start of last year’s pandemic, the Serum Institute was hailed for its role in “vaccinating the world”. However, signs of tension quickly appeared. A fire broke out at the company’s factory in January, killing five people. Two months later, New Delhi froze vaccine exports, which led to international lawsuits and forced Covax to delay vaccination campaigns.
Poonawalla’s pledge to increase Serum Institute’s Covid vaccine production capacity from 60 million to 70 million per month to 100 million by March has been postponed to July.
Poonawalla said he would return to India in the coming days as the company began distributing vaccines as part of a tiered procurement program. Half of the doses will be reserved for the central government, while state governments and hospitals will be able to purchase the rest at higher prices.
Analysts said New Delhi had dodged questions about how vaccines should be allocated, leaving Poonawalla to explain his role as the final arbiter of strokes for India’s 1.4 billion people.
“We’re just trying to distribute it equally in all states, that’s all,” he said. “The government guides us.”
He insisted, however, that he could deliver. “It’s not rocket science, it’s just getting the job done.”