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179. Can Adar Poonawalla supply Covid jabs to half the world in 12 months?

Adar Poonawalla has all the trappings of a jet-set lifestyle – including an office in a refurbished plane. But he’s also the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, with an audacious plan to supply the coronavirus vaccine to half the planet by this time next year. What’s more, he’s doing it at $3 a dose, which barely covers costs.

By the start of 2020, Adar Poonawalla’s company, Serum Institute of India, was comfortably the biggest vaccine manufacturer by volume in the world. It was making 1.5 billion doses of vaccines annually against diseases such as polio, tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis B at its state-of-the-art 100-acre campus in Pune, a city 90 miles east of Mumbai. Roughly two thirds of all the children on the planet were vaccinated with one or more of its products.

At 39, Poonawalla was truly the “vaccine prince” (his father was known as the king) not just of India, but of the world, with a jet-setting lifestyle and exceedingly glamorous wife to boot. Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

“My immediate reaction was that one way or another we’d have to play a significant and very crucial role, leveraging our capacities to make vaccines available to the world,” Poonawalla tells me over Zoom. He is sitting in a plush white leather chair inside a disused Airbus A320, which he has lavishly refurbished into a swanky office with a lounge, boardroom and bedroom. It was here that he just hosted Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and made a virtual address to the United Nations general assembly.

He did not wait for vaccines to be developed. Instead, he immediately embarked on a dramatic expansion of his manufacturing facilities so they would be ready to go the moment a vaccine was approved. “The alternative was to do nothing and just wait for about six months to see which vaccines worked and then invest in capacity,” he says. “Countless lives would have been lost.”

Poonawalla invested £270 million of his company’s money, and another £300 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to increase Serum’s manufacturing capacity from 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion doses a year. He imported giant 4,000-litre, 15ft-tall bioreactors costing £1.5 million each from Europe, and machines capable of filling 500 glass vials a minute. He added 700 new recruits to his 6,000-strong workforce. And in the midst of the global lockdown last April, long before he knew whether or when a vaccine would be forthcoming, he agreed to produce one billion doses of whatever the Oxford University-AstraZeneca research team eventually came up with.

“It was a huge gamble – huge, huge, huge… People said I was crazy or stupid doing such a big bet at that time,” Poonawalla tells me. Even after vaccines enter trials, the chances of them being licensed are little more than 30 per cent, he says. To hedge his bets, he struck similar agreements with three other companies pursuing Covid-19 vaccines: Novavax, SpyBiotech and Codagenix.

He had sleepless nights as the Oxford team pursued its elusive goal. “I don’t know how much hair I’ve lost – probably more than in the past four years,” he says with a laugh. He nonetheless took another big risk in September, when the Oxford vaccine was still at an early stage. He began actually to manufacture it in the hope that it would be licensed, and has already stockpiled at least 50 million doses.

Happily, his gamble looks likely to come off. Despite some setbacks, he is confident the Oxford vaccine will be approved, and as soon as it is he will start churning out 100 million priceless doses a month in an effort – to coin a phrase – to “send the virus packing”. He also hopes to start producing the Novavax vaccine in March, and the other two by the end of 2021.

Poonawalla says that he is not concerned that the Pfizer vaccine was approved first. “They may have a good vaccine, no doubt about it,” he said. “And it may be 90 per cent effective. But 90 per cent of the world will not be able to use it because of the price and the fact it has to be stored at minus 70C.”

By contrast, the Oxford vaccine is easy to store and distribute – and cheap. Under the terms of his agreement with AstraZeneca, Poonawalla will be producing it for 67 developing countries in the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), including India and most of Africa. Indeed, his overarching ambition is astounding. It is to supply Covid-19 vaccines to fully half the world’s 7.5 billion people in very short order. “If you talk to me this time next year we will probably have achieved, or be on our way to achieving, that target,” he says.

Poonawalla insists his primary motivation is not to make money, but to save lives. That is not just public relations spin. For the duration of the pandemic, the Serum Institute will mostly be selling the AstraZeneca vaccine at $3 a dose, which will barely cover its costs. To meet the demand, moreover, it has suspended production of other types of vaccine destined for Europe and America that it would have sold for $20 or $30 a dose (£15-£23).

“You can see the sacrifice,” says the man who hopes to deliver humanity from the scourge of this pandemic.

The rise of the Serum Institute of India is a remarkable story of vision and enterprise, and of tables turned.

Back in the 19th century, or so the story goes, a distant ancestor of Poonawalla’s worked as a “billiard marker” in a British officers’ club in Poona, as Pune was known in colonial times. He would retrieve the balls, keep the score and fill glasses. He used the connections he made with colonial administrators to win building contracts, and eventually became such a big landowner that people started calling him “Poonawalla” – the fellow from Poona.

Adar Poonawalla has no idea whether that tale is true or not. His forebears were certainly property owners, but his grandfather was one of 14 siblings, so his father, Cyrus, inherited only 40 acres, which were used to breed and race horses.

His father saw little future for the stud farm in particular, and horse racing in general, in quasi-socialist, post-independence India. To generate extra income, he began selling horses to a government institute in Mumbai so their blood serums could be used to make a tetanus anti-toxin and an anti-venom for snake bites. He then decided to “up the value chain”, Poonawalla says. “He said, ‘Why should we sell them the horses? Why don’t we do this ourselves?’ ”

In 1966, his father set up Serum Institute at a time when most vaccines were imported from abroad and far too expensive for hundreds of millions of ordinary Indians. It was also a time when lots of new vaccines were coming on stream, and the business took off. Cyrus Poonawalla, 79, is now the sixth richest man in India with a fortune of roughly $12 billion, just behind the Hinduja brothers but eclipsing the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal.

By the Nineties, he was wealthy enough to send his only son to St Edmund’s School in Canterbury, where young Poonawalla captained the tennis team for two years but earned only middling A levels. From there the boy followed friends to Westminster University, graduating with a second-class business degree. “I was never that good at academics,” he admits, but very soon he was demonstrating a considerable flair for business.

In 2001, he returned to India to join Serum Institute’s sales team, travelling around the country to learn the business from the bottom up. He then started developing an international market, cutting the price of vaccines by producing them in huge quantities and focusing on developing countries that the big western pharmaceutical companies ignored. Soon, he says, “we were not able to service the demand”.

In 2011, he became Serum Institute’s chief executive and set about doubling its production capacity, not least because he heard Bill Gates give a TED Talk in 2015 in which Microsoft’s co-founder warned that a pandemic posed a much greater threat to humanity than nuclear war because the world was so unprepared for one.

Expansion on that scale was a huge risk that Poonawalla could only take because the company was privately owned and he had no shareholders or investors to constrain him – just his father, who on occasion took some convincing. But by the time a global pandemic did finally strike this year, Serum Institute was five times bigger than when Poonawalla joined in 2001, selling vaccines to 170 countries and generating annual revenues in excess of $800 million. It was also a partner of the World Health Organisation, and saving millions of lives. “The contribution it has made to global health has been phenomenal,” said Gates.

Poonawalla now enjoys all the trappings of great wealth, and is quite unashamed of the fact. “We like to enjoy our life, because we’re not afraid of retribution or anyone who could question us, in the sense that we’ve made our wealth legally and properly and ethically,” he says. “A lot of people in India have always been fearful of enjoying their wealth, because perhaps some of them have not really done it the right way.”

He has his own 200-acre stud farm with a stylish ranch house near Serum Institute’s Pune campus, and breeds many of India’s top racehorses. He is trying to finalise the purchase of Lincoln House, the former Maharajah of Wankaner’s sprawling seafront palace in Mumbai, which later became the US consulate, reportedly for a record price for an Indian residential property of $113 million. He goes to the World Economic Forum in Davos, sails on the French Riviera, attends grands prix and calls the Prince of Wales “a close and very dear friend”.

He has private jets and a helicopter to ferry him between Pune and Mumbai. He owns paintings by Picasso, Dalí, Rembrandt and Rubens. He has a collection of 35 classic cars that includes vintage Silver Cloud and Phantom Rolls-Royces which, in pre-pandemic days, he would sometimes drive around Pune. “I enjoy them more than modern Ferraris and Lamborghinis, which I have a few of, but I hardly enjoy them now because they are so common. It doesn’t excite me that much.”

He met his wife, Natasha, in Goa in 2001 at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by Vijay Mallya, another Indian business tycoon. They have two sons. She is a highly photogenic favourite of India’s glossy magazines. She has been a Vogue cover girl and mixes with Bollywood stars and other glitterati. She counts Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas among her best friends and goes to – and sometimes hosts – the best parties. She models the latest designer clothes and has been labelled “India’s first lady of fabulousness” by Elle magazine.

But she is no trophy wife. Soon after Poonawalla gained his modest degree from Westminster University, she earned a master’s from the London School of Economics. “She’s more qualified to run Serum Institute than I am,” Poonawalla says with a laugh.

She actually runs the Villoo Poonawalla Foundation, Serum’s charitable arm, which is named after Poonawalla’s late mother. Its immodest ambition is to turn Pune, with a population of six million, into a model Indian city. It finances 7 schools and a hospital, provides clean drinking water at 35 locations, and has hundreds of full-time employees backed by 250 trucks collecting refuse from the streets for conversion into biogas.

Poonawalla – named India’s philanthropist of the year by Indian GQ in 2016 – says he pumps $20-$25 million into the foundation each year. “I feel our impact should be at scale, otherwise there’s no point.”

But it is Serum Institute’s provision of vaccines to the world’s poor that he is most proud of.

“It’s the single biggest motivational factor every day I wake up and I’m feeling lethargic to go to the office,” he says. “Everyone here at Serum feels and knows that purpose, and I think what’s driven us in the past few years is to know you’re making a difference in people’s lives and actually saving millions of lives every year.”

Poonawalla expects to be making Covid-19 vaccines for another five or ten years or more, not least because people may need booster jabs and today’s largely immune children will grow into more vulnerable adults.

He is also working with another Oxford University team on a pioneering vaccine for malaria that is in late-stage trials, and with other researchers on vaccines for dengue fever, meningitis and human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer in women.

Vaccine manufacturing was once a niche industry. Now it is crucial for the future of mankind and, thanks to Covid-19, governments around the world finally understand that. Thus Poonawalla plans to increase Serum Institute’s manufacturing capacity by a further one billion doses within three years.

“We have no choice,” says the man on whom much of the world depends for its future wellbeing. “If I believe what I’m saying about future pandemics and vaccine demand growing, I’d be foolish not to reinvest all my capital.”

He expects global pandemics to become more common as the human population grows, encroaches on animal habitats and travels more, and as climate change creates conditions more conducive to the spreading of disease. “It’s a melting pot, a stirring pot, just waiting to churn out more of these kinds of terrible viruses,” he says.

He believes that we were “lucky” with Covid-19. “Can you imagine if ebola were as infectious as coronavirus? We would probably not be having this conversation. One of us would probably not be alive.”


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