ADar Poonawala, 40, is the chief executive of the Serum Institute of India (SII), a Pune-based family-owned vaccine company that produces more than any other food source in the world. Is developing more vaccines. For now, the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is closing its production lines, but SII has signed agreements with three other developers – Novax, CodeGenix and SpyBiotech – all of which are candidates for the job.
Have you ever considered making a vaccine for a global pandemic?
No one wants an epidemic, but we were almost prepared for one. We produce approximately 170 billion doses of the vaccine each year in low- and middle-income countries. It is true that we never thought that the whole world depended on us so much, but no one else has the capacity.
What is being talked about in practice?
We coded ourselves in March. We took a big risk, because no one knew then that a vaccine was going to work. Of the 800 800 million (57 9579 million) we needed, we raised ڈالر 270 million and the rest from the Gates Foundation and various countries. We dedicated 1,000 to 1,000 employees to the program and postponed all product launches for 2020 for two to three years, so that we could have access to them. Then there was the question of equipping these facilities and getting them ready for use, which we did in record time. By August, we were developing and stocking a vaccine that we predicted would, correctly, be approved around December. The first doses were shipped in January, and we’ve shipped 30 million to date.
When will you reach your full potential?
Right now our production is around 70m food a month. By the end of March, when we have the third Covid-19 facility up and running, it will be 100 meters and if we can improve our operation, it could be even higher by the end of the year. Among others, we provide the Covacs scheme, which aims to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine fairly around the world. It aims to send 2bn doses by the end of 2021. I think realistically it could take 18 months, because if we’re lucky we can produce 400m by the end of the year.
If the immunizations need to be adjusted to avoid future variations, what will be the challenge?
It will be easier now that these processes are ongoing. We spread the virus to living cells, so we only infect those cells with a master clone. It will take us two to three months to start developing new vaccines according to capacity.
Some people think that the reason for the slow rollout in many countries is that very few manufacturers are licensed to manufacture the patents on the vaccines. Do you agree
no. There are a lot of manufacturers here, it only takes time to measure. And anyway, I’ve been blown away by the cooperation between the public and private sectors over the last year in developing these vaccines. What I find really disappointing is that the supply of vaccines has increased by a few months. What have the US, UK and European regulators been doing over the last seven months, when I have been busy developing vaccines? How difficult would it be to get together with the World Health Organization and agree that if a vaccine is approved in half a dozen or so large manufacturing countries, it is allowed to be sent anywhere on the planet?
Instead we have an approval patch and I have 70m doses that I can’t send because they have been purchased but not approved. His life is six months. They expire in April.
What do you think when you see rich countries stepping in to supply vaccines?
I think the manufacturers planned too much and did not manage the expectations well. I broke my promise and said I would prepare 50 million meals from day one. If everyone said, ‘Don’t expect large quantities until May or June’, I think that could have been avoided.
There are reports that in some countries, rich people are looking for ways to get vaccinated before poor people. Is this happening in India too?
Here’s the reverse. SII is legally bound to supply the Government of India and the government is giving priority to the poor, the weak and the frontline workers. This means that unless they are elderly or meet other specific criteria, not everyone else goes behind the line. Don’t forget that India’s population is so large that 200 million Indians are at risk. That’s already 400 million doses.
Can you explain the situation in India more than compensation in case of vaccine injury? In many countries, the government pays the manufacturer for the costs of vaccine injury, but here the manufacturer is responsible. I have no problem paying compensation if the injury is related to immunizations, but at the moment it is possible that the Indian courts will issue an injunction on my case pending investigation of such a case, even if it is an injury. Turned out Vaccine related or not. I have appealed to the government that this should not be possible in an epidemic, as it means that such a claim could hinder us globally. In fact, we have already had such a case and the Ministry of Health had to take steps to save us from closure.
Do you think Covid 19 will change the way vaccines are made forever?
Yes. Now almost every country wants to manage local manufacturing so that it never needs to be vaccinated again. They may not all succeed, but for now it seems like political will and capital. Many pharmaceutical companies and generic manufacturers have also realized that there is room for new players in the field of vaccines. I predict that the landscape will change in the next five years.
The journey of the world’s largest vaccine producer from its inception in 1966 to 2021 is a long one. How did it start?
The Huffkin Institute, a Mumbai-based government agency, injected venom or bacterium into horses and mules to make anti-snake bites and tetanus serums, then a few days later drew its own blood and extracted antibodies. Mine is a family of farmers and horse breeders, and my father sold animals at the Cyrus Institute. At last he thought, “Why not cut the middle man and make a serum – later a vaccine – himself?”
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