Indian CEO behind world's biggest vaccine producer

BATMOBILE-driving Indian CEO of world’s biggest vaccine producer meant to be supplying UK jabs says countries hoarding ingredients has slowed production – while Delhi also wants to target its surging second wave

  • CEO Adar Poonawalla and billionaire father Cyrus run India’s Serum Institute
  • The world’s largest vaccine producer is manufacturing doses of AstraZeneca jab
  • But shipments to Britain have been delayed in a blow to UK’s jabs programme
  • Adar says countries are hoarding materials and India is demanding more doses 

The delay in vaccine shipments to Britain from an Indian pharma giant run by a father and son with a fleet of luxury cars comes amid a resurgence of Covid-19 infections which is causing fears of a second wave in the country of 1.4billion.  

Billionaire Adar Poonawalla and his father Cyrus linked up their Serum Institute with AstraZeneca’s vaccine developers months before the shot had passed its trials last year, taking a huge financial gamble on the UK-developed jab. 

The bet has paid off with Serum’s factories in India now churning out tens of millions of doses per month, but deliveries to Britain are being held up as countries hoard materials and India demands more doses for itself. 

Adar Poonawalla, the ‘batmobile’-driving CEO of the Serum Institute, said the shortage in UK supplies had ‘nothing to do with’ his firm – blaming the Indian government for holding up supplies to Britain. 

While India’s infection and death rates are fairly low given its vast size, a sudden spike in new cases – which have leaped by 47 per cent in a week – has prompted new curfews, school closures and a demand for more vaccine doses at home. 

Adar Poonawalla (left), pictured with his wife Natasha Poonawalla last year, is the chief executive of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer – India’s Serum Institute

The Serum Institute was founded in 1966 by Cyrus Poonawalla (pictured right, with actress Sharon Stone) after a mishap on the family’s stud farm 

Adar Poonawalla’s so-called ‘batmobile’, pictured, is part of the family’s collection of luxury cars – but the firm also gambled millions on vaccine production 

The New Delhi city government has announced plans to ramp up vaccinations from 40,000 a day to 125,000, officials said, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. 

Authorities in the state of Odisha are seeking an additional 2.5million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot, which is marketed as Covishield in India.

India has already handed out more than 37million doses, mostly using AstraZeneca, but PM Narendra Modi has asked state leaders to increase testing and vaccinations.  

The Serum Institute is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and has partnered with various developers including Novavax and Codagenix as well as AstraZeneca. 

It is aiming to ramp up production to 100million doses per month by April, making India a major competitor with Russia and China in the global vaccine market.   

Founded by Cyrus Poonawalla in 1966, the firm’s origins go back to the Poonawalla family’s background in racehorse breeding – which led them into pharmaceuticals after one of their horses was bitten by a snake. 

The horse’s death after bureaucratic delays meant no serum was available prompted Poonawalla senior to found the firm so that treatments could be made at the farm.

Part of the Poonawalla-owned campus in Pune is still a stud farm today, but it also employs hundreds of workers on its huge-scale global vaccine production. 

Two of the Ferraris in the family’s fleet of luxury cars, after the Poonawalla empire grew from a way of treating horses on a stud farm to a global pharma giant 

As well as supercars, Adar Poonawalla has a collection of vintage and custom off-road cars

Just some of the extensive fleet is put on display – including Bentleys, Lamborghinis and Ferraris

India has seen a sharp resurgence in cases after a months-long decline from last year’s peak when cases reached nearly 100,000 per day 

Deaths are also on the rise again after falling below 100 a day for a time, with India once more recording 1,000 fatalities per week – though this compares favourably to most of Europe 

Some of the family fortune has gone on supercars including the CEO’s so-called ‘batmobile’, believed to be a £40,000 adaptation of a Mercedes S350. 

The family also owns Ferraris and Rolls-Royces including a vintage Silver Shadow and a Phantom Drophead Coupe, according to Indian media.   

But last year the CEO and his father decided to invest millions in Covid-19 vaccines, months before it was known whether any of them would even be effective. 

‘It was just a quick five-minute chat between myself and my father,’ Adar Poonawalla told NPR.  

Around half of Serum’s production capacity has been promised to the Indian government, but it is also exporting AstraZeneca shots to numerous countries. 

These include Britain, where health secretary Matt Hancock said a delayed arrival from the Serum Institute was to blame for a sudden shortfall in supplies. 

It means that people under 50 potentially face a longer wait to get their first dose, although the government says there will be no delay to second doses.  

Downing Street did not deny the suggestion from Poonawalla that the Indian government was temporarily blocking exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Poonawalla told Bloomberg that countries including the US and India were hoarding not only doses but the ingredients required to make them. 

‘We had to dedicate a lot of our capacity, which was not originally planned for India,’ he said. 

‘We’re trying to balance it out as much as possible, but again for the first few months we have been directed to prioritise supplies to India and certain other countries that have a high disease burden.’  

Airport staff unload boxes of AstraZeneca’s vaccine developed by the Serum Institute at Mumbai Airport last month 

He also told the Telegraph: ‘It is solely dependent on India and it has nothing to do with [us]. It is to do with the Indian government allowing more doses to the UK.’

A No 10 spokesman said: ‘I would point back to what [Serum] have said and the fact that they are one of the manufacturers of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

‘We produce it here in the UK and it’s produced elsewhere as well so we will continue to work with the manufacturers of the vaccine.’

Asked if ministers were in talks with the Indian government, No 10 said: ‘We’re in constant contact with other governments around the world’. 

AstraZeneca said its ‘UK domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption’, but made no mention of possible problems in India. 

Britain’s current other vaccine provider is Pfizer, which denied any issues with its UK delivery schedule.

Hancock told parliament that jabs from a third supplier, Moderna, were expected ‘in the coming weeks’.

India brands its own vaccination campaign as the world’s largest, with around 37million people given a dose so far. 

The country also has one of the highest counts of cases and deaths in the world, with a total of 11.5million infections leading to more than 159,000 deaths. 

But this compares favourably to Western countries on a per-capita basis, with Britain recording 80 per cent as many deaths for a population only five per cent as large. 

Still, India is experiencing a three-month high in daily infection numbers after weekly cases rose from 129,000 last week to 189,000 in the last seven days. 

Cases had been in a months-long decline after falling from a first-wave peak of nearly 100,000 per day last September. 

The death rate has also picked up again, with more than 1,000 deaths recorded in the space of a week for the first time since late January. 

Adar Poonawalla, pictured with the UK’s international trade secretary Liz Truss, says India’s government is demanding more vaccine doses than expected for itself 

Britain is getting a delayed shipment from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine-maker, which is producing some of Britain’s supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab

India’s Punjab state has extended a night curfew across nine districts while Modi’s home state of Gujarat has shut some of its schools until at least April 10. 

In Maharashtra, the home of Mumbai, the rapid spread in industrial areas has raised fears of further disruption to India’s economy. 

Cases have more than doubled in the past two weeks in industrial towns such as Pune, Aurangabad, Nashik and Nagpur, home to car, chemical and textile factories.  

‘We have asked industries there to operate with minimum manpower as much possible,’ said a senior Maharashtra government official.

Hospital beds and special Covid-19 facilities were filling up fast, especially in Mumbai, Nagpur and Pune, said another state official.

The state of 112million people has ordered a new lockdown in some districts and put curbs on cinemas, hotels and restaurants until the end of the month. 

Neighbouring Pakistan has also noticed a sharp rise in cases, blamed in part on the British variant of Covid-19. 

Most of the new cases came from Pakistan’s largest and richest province, Punjab, where hospital beds were said to be filling up fast. 

India and Pakistan have a combined population of 1.57billion, a fifth of humanity. 

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