An employee in protective clothing pushes a cart into a laboratory at the Indian Serum Institute in Pune, where coronavirus vaccines are manufactured
The tiny clinking vials monitored by silent PPE-wearing technicians believe the world’s largest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India, is a major player in the fight against the coronavirus.
Founded in 1966 in the western city of Pune, the company produces millions of doses of the Covishield vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University for India and much of the developing world.
Unlike the competing Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, Covishield can be stored and transported using standard refrigeration.
It’s also significantly cheaper than vaccines developed by Pfizer or US company Moderna, making it better suited for countries with poorer populations and rusty infrastructure.
The Indian company was a global leader in vaccines even before the pandemic. It produced 1.5 billion doses a year and vaccinated two in three children in 170 countries against diseases such as polio, mumps, meningitis and measles.
The journey began at a stud farm where the company’s owners, the Poonawalla family, began breeding horses in 1946, before a conversation with a veterinarian led to the realization that antitoxin serum obtained from the animals could be used to make vaccines.
The Serum Institute soon became the market leader thanks to its cheap and effective drugs that were eagerly requested by budget conscious governments and consumers, causing the company to expand at a dizzying pace.
An assembly line to make vials from Covishield, the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University
Adar Poonawalla, its 40-year-old CEO, has spent nearly a billion dollars over the past few years to expand and improve the sprawling Pune campus.
When the coronavirus pandemic broke out around the world, the company, which had annual sales of over $ 800 million between 2019 and 20, and is debt-free, was in the pole position to take advantage of the benefits.
“Used to pressure”
On the palm-lined Pune campus, on the grounds of which are horse-shaped topiaries that playfully hint at the company’s origins, are several buildings where vaccines are manufactured and quality checked before they are deposited in sterilized vials and stored for delivery .
From Brazil to South Africa there is no shortage of customers, and governments are demanding Covishield.
With Poonawalla pledging to reserve 50 percent of Covishield shares for the Indian market, New Delhi, which aims to immunize 300 million people by July, is conducting a vaccination diplomacy and plans to ship 20 million doses to its South Asian neighbors.
The palm-lined campus of the Serum Institute in Pune is home to several buildings that manufacture vaccines
The Serum Institute also plans to provide 200 million doses to Covax, a World Health Organization-supported effort to source and distribute vaccines to poor countries.
If this all sounds overwhelming, the company’s bosses aren’t concerned.
“We are used to this type of pressure because there have been situations in the past where we needed to increase production to meet country requirements,” Suresh Jadhav, executive director of the Serum Institute, told AFP.
Even a fatal fire in a building under construction this week didn’t hurt confidence. Poonawalla promptly tweeted that “there would be no loss of #COCISHIELD production due to multiple production buildings that I kept in reserve for such contingencies”.
The pandemic has transformed Poonawalla’s public profile from a jet-setting billionaire known for his expensive taste in cars and art to a pharmaceutical tycoon who applauds for his risk-taking and commitment to affordable vaccines.
Adar Poonawalla, the 40-year-old CEO of the Serum Institute, saw the pandemic change his public profile
Unsurprisingly, the father of two has not held back to confront so-called anti-Vaxxers, including insulting US rapper Kanye West for spreading conspiracy theories.
“While we really enjoy your music @KanyeWest, your views on #vaccines seem irresponsible and borderline dangerous given the influence you could have now and in the future. Vaccines save lives,” Poonawalla tweeted in July.
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© 2021 AFP
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