New Delhi: It was back in 2011, shortly after taking over as chief executive officer of Serum Institute of India (SII), that Adar Poonawalla set out on doubling the capacity of what is now the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume. Motivated initially by the economies of scale, Poonawalla, whose father Cyrus started the company, made a series of choices that would put his company in a position to offer India its strongest hope of a coronavirus vaccine – both in terms of how much and how cheaply the country could source shots.
“Shortly after taking over as 2011, I began working on doubling our capacity. Not only did I want to build redundancies, but I also wanted to prepare a pandemic level event,” the entrepreneur said at the 18th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Thursday.
The focus on creating mass capacity for a pandemic – which the world faces for the first time in a century – began with a now-famous Ted talk by Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates. “I wanted to prepare for a pandemic level event ever since I heard Bill Gates say at a Ted talk that we should probably be more worried and be spending more funds on this kind of a threat than on nuclear or space programmes,” he said.
In the summer of 2020, Poonawalla and his team became among the first pharma firms to commit to producing billions of doses of vaccines even before they were proven safe or effective. “I felt it was my moral responsibility to take the decision then because if I didn’t, countless lives would be lost next year,” he said, referring to SII’s deal for the production of a billion doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine candidate that was announced on June 5.
The company has since announced deals with two other American firms Novavax and Codagenix.
“Because if I took the decision now at this stage when we know the vaccine is going to produce good results, we will have lost six months of hundreds of millions of doses which would then become available at the end of the year instead of early on,” he said.
The decision, he added, involved elaborate risk calculations. “We had no choice but to take a chance early, to bet and commit so that lives are not lost. We made a scientific decision to select the partners that we did,” he said.
What followed was a period Poonawalla described as stressful. “It was stressful and we worked at record pace, sourcing equipment and manpower in record time,” he added.
At present, two of the company’s facilities are churning out about 50-60 million vials of the vaccine every month. “We are planning to make about 100 million doses on a monthly bases, which we expect by February. Right now there are two facilities dedicated for it and by January or February, there will be two more facilities that are at present being validated,” he said.
The final output will be divided in a 50-50 ratio between India and the Covax Facility, a non-profit arrangement led by World Health Organization to distribute vaccines to low and middle income countries.
Poonawalla said the company also has an arrangement for vaccine doses, and several other governments have reached out to it. “Covax is catering to all of Africa which is 2 billion people. We don’t want to take on too much and keep India a priority,” he said, adding that the company had not committed to any other nation as such yet.
All three vaccines work on distinct platforms, which increase the chances of success in efficacy and safety. Poonawalla, University of Oxford and AstraZeneca have said that they expect the pivotal efficacy results of the UK-made vaccine candidate to come in within the next 2-3 weeks.
Efficacy results will pave the way for the developers of the vaccine – Oxford and AstraZeneca in this case – to seek what is known as an emergency use licence. This will allow it to be given to healthcare workers and vulnerable people, with permission for the general public expected in another three-four months, Poonawalla added.
According to Poonawalla, SII is now working on a “pandemic-level facility that can handle any pathogen or platform”. The project involves an investment of Rs 3,000 crore and will add another billion doses in production capacity once it becomes operational in two years, he added.
He reflected on what the company’s role in fighting the pandemic meant for his father, who founded it in the late 60’s. “When he started the company, never did he imagine it would grow to the level that it has now. He was only trying to address the huge shortage of vaccine that existed back in the day when India was dependent on imports,” he said.
“To see this happen in his lifetime is the best reward that he could have imagined, for all his hard work that he put in,” Poonawalla said, describing the early days of the company as a struggle against red tape, lack of funding and talent.
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