The Serum Institute of India, the most prominent vaccine producer globally, has often made the headlines ever since it began producing Covid-19 vaccines for Oxford-AstraZeneca. After the second wave seized India, the Serum has once again caught the attention of global media, but for a different reason.
Its CEO Adar Poonwalla 'fled' India after high influencers threatened him demanding vaccines. Poonwalla has been in London ever since in fear for his life.
In an interview with Times earlier this week, Poonwalla said he stayed in London for an extended time because "I don't want to go back to that situation… Everything falls on my shoulders, but I can not do it alone. I do not want to be in a situation where you are just trying to do your job, and just because you can't supply the needs of X, Y or Z, you do not want to guess what they are going to do."
However, after the Indian government recently promised Y category security for Poonwalla, the Serum CEO said he would return to India in a few days.
So, what was Adar Poonawalla's story behind making Serum the largest vaccine producer in the world? How did the rise of Serum Institute take place?
We have to take a trip down memory lane to the '60s, when the father of Adar, Cyrus Poonawalla, started this venture.
Father Poonwalla laying the ground
Cyrus, intending to engage in business with mass-market potential, figured a massive demand for snake bite anti-venoms and tetanus antitoxins in India. Tetanus antitoxin counterbalances tetanus in the bloodstream.
These anti-venom and antitoxin are produced by injecting horses with a small amount of venom and bacteria. Horses' Serum – the fluid part of blood is harvested and refined into treatments.
The Poonawallas used to sell retired racehorses to a government institute in Mumbai involved in tetanus vaccine production. It was Cyrus's prudence that he realised he could manufacture it more profitably. The Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd., which he founded in 1966, was soon working on vaccines, too, including the one for tetanus.
In the early '70s, when there was a wave of smallpox and polio elimination worldwide and India introduced measles-mumps-rubella shots, vaccine production in India was largely dependent on government-run labs.
Rigid bureaucracy, high manufacturing cost, and sleepy service delivery made it difficult for the government to produce vaccines on a large scale. Cyrus leveraged Serum's agile management and lower costs to bag contracts from national and state administrations.
Under the supervision of father Poonwalla, the Serum Institute continued to grow that the son Poonwalla would take to global leadership in vaccine production once he joined.
Rise of son Poonwalla, the vaccine prince
Adar Poonawalla, a fresh graduate from the University of Westminster, joined Serum's sales team in 2001.
At that time, Western manufacturers were producing more complex vaccines at a higher price which were unaffordable to poorer countries. This left the third world markets open to any provider at a lower cost.
Adar grabbed the opportunity.
He travelled different parts of the world and made sure it is Serum that would be providing vaccines all over the world at a lower price.
From 35 exporting countries, today, the Serum sells vaccines to 140 countries.
For Adar, It was all about creating capacity as there will be a never-ending demand for vaccines worldwide. For the developed world's manufacturers, making basic vaccines for emerging markets had a low-profit margin. So, they were not attracted.
When Adar became the CEO of Serum in 2011, he anticipated the growing vaccine demand accurately and gradually increased Serum's production footprint. He built a more robust manufacturing line and multiplied its capacity.
India' second wave, and the vaccine prince in water
Today Serum Institute of India is one of the top producers of Covid-19 vaccines. With Oxford's method and AstraZeneca's finance and distribution channel, Adar managed the deal for Serum to produce 400 million doses of Covishield, the local name for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
As India has identified more than 20 million Covid-19 cases so far and lost more than 226,169 lives, Serum is the country's resort to get out of the crisis.
The company produces 70 million doses of Covishield per month now. Notwithstanding, Adar Poonawalla had to be threatened by politicians and business tycoons to secure their jabs.
The problem started in New Delhi's vaccine procurement strategy. In April, India decided to allow state governments and private hospitals to purchase half of the vaccine stocks. The situation would have been otherwise had the government centralised the distribution.
Early orders of vaccines from rich country politicians gave manufacturers the confidence to upsurge their production. On the contrary, the Indian government waited for the vaccines to be approved first and then placed orders slowly when the production took place in their own country.
''They are saying if you don't give us the vaccine, it's not going to be good. It is not foul language. It is the tone. It is the implication of what they might do if I do not comply. It's taking control. It's coming over and basically surrounding the place and not letting us do anything unless we give in to their demands", said Poonawalla in his interview with The Times.
The COVAX facility backed by the World Health Organization for lower-income countries' vaccine requirements was supposed to be manufactured in Serum, whose production is now on hold.
Poonawalla is yet to return as the gossip on the Internet continues. In the meantime, the vaccine prince has also indicated he is thinking of expanding Serum's manufacture outside of India.