Adar Poonawalla — the CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker — pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into his Indian manufacturing facility and committed to make millions of doses of a then-unproven coronavirus vaccine.
“It was a calculated risk,” Poonawalla told CNN Business. “But I didn’t see the choice at that time, to be honest. I just felt I’d regret not committing one way or another.”
To make his plan work, Poonawalla first had to raise nearly $1 billion. And the lives of hundreds of millions of the planet’s most vulnerable people were at stake, since SII had pledged to provide poorer countries with jabs. If the gamble paid off, Poonawalla would save countless lives and be hailed as a hero during a period of historic turmoil. His fabulously rich family also would stand to grow even more wealthy by profiting from a significant deal.
As the world gave its money — and trust — to Poonawalla, 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 soon it became evident how badly Poonawalla had miscalculated the challenges that come with distributing millions of vaccines in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
His company’s ability to inoculate even his own countrymen was thrown into doubt earlier this year as a devastating wave of coronavirus hit India. He’s also failed to keep up with his commitment to deliver shots to other nations — the consequences of which have dented his reputation and shed light on the perils of such heavy reliance on one manufacturer.
From horse breeders to vaccine makers
It’s easy to see why some of the biggest names in public health chose to rely on Poonawalla.
Few manufacturers can come close to the scale at which SII is able to produce 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 worldwide, including India. Poonawalla estimates that just over 50% of the world’s babies depend on vaccines made at SII.
The Poonawalla family charted an unusual path to becoming one of the world’s preeminent vaccine makers. They have bred and raced thoroughbred horses since the 1940s, diversifying into pharmaceuticals, finance and real estate over the last half-century.
To prepare for the AstraZeneca vaccine production, Poonawalla said he spent $800 million on buying chemicals, glass vials and other raw materials, as well as ramping up manufacturing capacity at his plant in the Western Indian city of Pune.
All of that happened, though, before regulators signed off on the AstraZeneca vaccine. Had trials for that vaccine been unsuccessful, SII would “just be making batches and then end up throwing them away,” Poonawalla said.
A business studies graduate of London’s University of Westminster, Poonawalla said SII was able to make that decision more swiftly than many other companies, since it is a family-run business.
India’s Covid-19 tsunami
“I’ve always been a patriot for my country … and if my country needs my facility first, I have to do what they say,” Poonawalla said. “There was no two ways about that.”
When asked why the global vaccine alliance chose to rely so heavily on one manufacturer, a Gavi spokesperson told CNN Business it had few options.
At the start of 2021, “very few vaccines were approved and available for deployment,” the spokesperson said, adding that it was “natural” that SII would be contracted for early doses given its size.
But public health expert Jeffrey Lazarus said there were flaws in the plan.
“Relying on one 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.
Being held to account
While Poonawalla cannot be held responsible for some of the issues that led to the vaccine rollout stalling — chief among them, India’s massive outbreak — his detractors have questioned parts of his approach.
They point out Poonawalla hasn’t delivered the number of jabs he initially promised, and they claim he hasn’t been transparent about how he’s been using all of the money he raised for the big vaccine push.
“There isn’t much accountability for where the money he raised went,” Malini Aisola, co-convenor of health sector watchdog All India Drug Action Network, told CNN Business.
He also insists he was realistic about his goals. “We always underpromise,” Poonawalla told CNN Business, when asked whether the company pledged more than it could deliver.
According to AstraZeneca, the companies the drugmaker has sublicensing agreements with, including SII, dictate their own prices.
SII declined to comment on how much it has profited 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 profit from the vaccine.
And as of September, SII had increased its production schedule to 160 million doses a month. It has so far delivered about 700 million, most of which were used in India.
SII is also expanding its partnerships, having signed a deal with American biotech firm Novavax to manufacture its Covid-19 vaccine, which is awaiting regulatory approvals.