The AstraZeneca vaccine made Professor Sarah Gilbert – who led the Oxford team that created it – one of the UK’s most famous modern scientists and made the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company a name familiar.
But nearly half of all AstraZeneca snapshots, aimed at the guns of hundreds of millions of people around the world, are produced by a 40-year-old Indian billionaire with a penchant for private jets and Picassos.
Adar Poonawalla, the self-proclaimed ‘prince of vaccines’, is managing director of the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine producer, which, even before the coronavirus hit, was making more than 1.5 billion shots per year for everything related to polio and diphtheria against tetanus, BCG, hepatitis B and MMR vaccines (measles, mumps and rubella).
The vaccines have made Poonawalla and her family extraordinarily rich. They are now the sixth richest family in India with an estimated fortune of $ 15 billion (£ 11 billion), according to The Times of India.
Among their portfolio of properties is Lincoln House, a Mumbai mansion that is the former United States Embassy in India. At $ 113 million, it was the most expensive Indian house to ever sell when they bought it in 2015.
Poonawalla, who studied for £ 30,000 a year at St Edmund’s School in Canterbury and the University of Westminster, this week signed a deal to rent a Mayfair mansion for a record £ 50,000 a week.
The property, which at 2,3oo square meters (25,000 square feet) is 24 times the size of an average English house, comes with an adjoining guest house backing onto one of Mayfair’s ‘secret gardens’. He rents it to Polish billionaire Dominika Kulczyk, who bought it for £ 57million last year.
Poonawalla, married with two children, travels by helicopter and private jet. He owns paintings by Picasso, Dalí, Rembrandt and Rubens, and has a collection of 35 rare luxury cars, including several Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, as well as a Mercedes S350 converted into a Batmobile replica.
Her personal website admits her lifestyle seems flashy. “It’s easy to dismiss Adar Poonawalla as a rich kid… posing next to racehorses,” he says. But, he then adds, “flamboyance is cultivated” and that he is in fact “a serious young man who was trained by a difficult boss – his father Cyrus Poonawala”.
Producing vaccines was not Poonawalla’s idea. His father, Cyrus, founded SII in 1966 on the fringes of his 81 hectare (200 acre) Poonawalla Stud thoroughbred racehorse barn. (The purified horse blood serum has been used in the production of early vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and scarlet fever.)
But it was Poonawalla who convinced his father to “play big” on vaccines after watching a Bill Gates talk in 2015, in which the billionaire Microsoft co-founder-turned-philanthropist warned the world was not prepared for. a new viral pandemic.
“I have wanted to be ready for a pandemic level event ever since I heard Bill Gates in a speech by Ted where he made it clear that we should be more worried and prepared for such situations,” Poonawalla told the Hindustan Times.
He doubled the company’s production facilities and started producing more vaccines for developing countries on behalf of the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi), the Gates-supported vaccine charity of which Poonawalla is a board member.
The title of “Prince of Vaccines” stuck when Poonawalla was appointed CEO of SII in 2011, replacing his father as “King of Vaccines,” who is now chairman of the Poonawalla Group, which includes SII.
When the coronavirus hit, Poonawalla had a decision to make: “Do nothing and watch how it unfolds, or take the risk and become a favorite.” He took the risk.
At the time, the institute was working with the University of Oxford on the development of a new malaria vaccine, and its scientists asked to collaborate on the Gilbert vaccine.
Last May, Poonawalla met AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot on a video call, and negotiated a deal for SII to manufacture around 1 billion doses over 12 months, nearly half of the total.
That same month, a parcel arrived at SII’s sprawling campus in Pune, 150 km southeast of Mumbai. A vial containing the components needed to create the Oxford vaccine, a cell substrate in which to grow it, and detailed instructions was packaged in dry ice. Results of clinical trials or regulatory approvals that the vaccine was effective or even safe were not included.
Nonetheless, Poonawalla ordered three of its factories – which at the time manufactured ” [other] vaccines ”- to immediately switch production to the AZD1222 Oxford / AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
“No one wants a pandemic, but we were almost designed for a pandemic,” he told the Guardian earlier this year from his desk inside a converted Airbus A320 plane, which he describes as ” somewhat similar to Air Force One ”.
“We produce 1.5 billion doses of vaccine each year. We never imagined that the whole world depended so much on us, but no one else has our capacity to evolve, ”he said. The decision to invest, he added, was easy because the company is a private company “and is not accountable to investors, bankers and shareholders”.
Instead, he says, “it was just a quick five-minute chat between me and my dad.” It was also, he admits, “a huge gamble – huge, huge, huge. People said I was crazy or stupid making such a big bet at that time.
By the time the vaccine received its first regulatory approval from the UK Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in December 2020, SII had already administered 40 million doses. (The WHO approved it in February, but the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has yet to give its approval.)
The institute now produces 80 million doses per month and is soon aiming for 100 million doses per month, although a fire at one of its manufacturing plants in January took it away from the target.
But the huge output of SII has thrown him and Poonawalla into the global political spotlight, as world leaders fight for the doses and India – grappling with its own surge in Covid cases – wants them production chains in the country supply it first.
Last month, Poonawalla tweeted: “Dear countries and governments, while we wait #COVISHIELD supplies, I humbly ask you to be patient, @SerumInstIndia has been instructed to prioritize India’s huge needs… We are doing our best.
This week, the Indian government introduced a de facto two to three month ban on vaccine exports, which will have repercussions in the UK, Europe and low- and middle-income countries adhering to the Covax program. ‘WHO.
Controls will delay doses by 5m due to their shipment to the UK. The looming shortage means the UK vaccination schedule has been delayed by a month and vaccinations will not be widely offered to those under 50s until May 1.
Back in India, Poonawalla builds another factory. This $ 400 million facility, due to open in 2024, is designed to produce 1 billion doses of vaccine per year. It may be too late to help with the current coronavirus vaccination campaign, but it is the next pandemic that is now worrying Poonawalla.
“Maybe not in my lifetime, but at least in the lives of my children there is going to be another global pandemic,” he told Bloomberg. “And I’m willing to bet that anything with the pandemic will be a lot worse than that. “