Adar Poonawalla leads perhaps the busiest vaccine production operation in the world. The billionaire and CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII) had some tough words for the United States and China, both of which shunned participation in the COVAX alliance seeking a fair and more equitable distribution of registered vaccines worldwide. Mr. Poonawalla’s point: the vaccine doesn’t know boundaries, and a fail-safe way to eradicate COVID-19 requires ensuring all worldwide will be treated and inoculated. Just as importantly on world trades, its economy of imports and exports won’t thrive again until the elimination of the menacing pathogen that knows no boundaries.
Recently, CNN’s Julia Chatterley caught up with Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of Serum Institute of India, purportedly the busiest vaccine production operation worldwide. Poonawalla has established a low price for the vaccine (about $3-5 per shot) in keeping with the mission and spirit of his father and founder of SII, Cyrus Poonawalla. That the world’s population, including the poorest of the poor, should have access to vaccines.
Chatterley point blank pits Mr. Poonawalla against big Western pharmaceutical companies in her opening salvo by asking if it’s fair that given all of the research and development involved that they lower their purported target prices (for volume deals in the hundreds of millions of shots) from $20 per shot perhaps down to $15.
Of course, Chatterley doesn’t offer context for the viewer, for example that Western pharmaceutical companies are receiving, in many cases, hundreds of millions if not billions in government support to reduce risk during the pandemic. Poonawalla in his response was deferential and gracious, commenting that it wasn’t fair for him to answer on Western pharma’s behalf. He acknowledged that they can probably have some room for price reductions, but noted their costs are perhaps double SII’s overhead.
China & USA are “Crazy” not to Join COVAX
Mr. Poonawalla became far more animated, sharp and directed when Ms. Chatterley brought up the COVAX program, a global effort to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are distributed equally. She reminded him that both the United States and China, the two largest economies respectively aren’t participating. Dropping the more deferential tone, Poonawalla declared, “Well, I think it’s just crazy if these nations don’t join because you know if you don’t support all of these other nations, if the richer nations don’t support the poorer nations; after all we are a global economy and these other countries don’t open up, if the fear doesn’t go away, and they can’t access a vaccine it’s not just the ethical issue that we are talking about, its opening up the economies that we are all dependent on, imports, exports and trade, if we don’t all come together for this common cause then it’s just crazy.”
Led by GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization (WHO) and The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), COVAX representing a “pillar” of access to vaccines developed by governments and pharmaceutical firms: “a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual COVID-19 vaccines.”
On the topic of expedited vaccines out of China and Russia, Mr. Poonawalla took a careful stand commenting that they need to be open but would also need to see more data. He shared what TrialSite has been reporting on Russian Sputnik V, that they are aggressively marketing that product and courting partners around the world. Poonawalla also said SII probably had as many vaccines in its portfolio as it could handle at this point.
Finally he concurred with Ms. Chatterley’s point that perhaps the world will need a more potent and efficacious vaccine only requiring one shot. He commented that in India they are working on two live attenuated vaccine candidates that will only require one shot but they are two to three years out. In the meantime, AstraZeneca and Novavax are ahead and he acknowledged that having a vaccine that’s only 50 percent effective and requires two shots is better than nothing—especially in pandemic conditions.
Led by CEPI, GAVI and WHO, the non-governmental agencies behind the COVAX effort suggest, “With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe.” Their “vaccines pillar,” the initiative seeks to ensure at least 2 billion doses of vaccine can be distributed fairly by the end of 2021. For a breakdown of COVAX and the shunning of this multilateral effort by China and the United States, check out Julia Belluz’s piece in Vox.
About Serum Institute of India
Founded by billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla, Serum Institute of India (SII) is known as the busiest vaccine producer worldwide. The company makes about 1.3 billion vaccine doses annually. They develop vaccines such as one for tuberculosis—Tubervac (BCG), Poliovac for poliomyelitis, and other vaccines for the childhood vaccination schedule.
By 2012, the company made its first international acquisition buying Biltthoven biologicals, a Netherlands biopharma company.
SII is actively involved in the war against COVID-19 via future vaccination. They established a strategic alliance with AstraZeneca to co-develop, manufacture and distribute the “Oxford” vaccine also known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 or AZD1222. SII is committed to helping make and distribute at least 100 million doses in India and other low and middle-income countries at a target of $3 per dose.