Nov 8, 2021 - Axios on HBO

World's biggest vaccine maker to resume COVID-19 exports

The CEO of the world's biggest vaccine maker told "Axios on HBO" he expects low-income countries will start receiving much-needed exports of his COVID-19 vaccines this week, now that India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is lifting restrictions.

Why this matters: Billionaire Adar Poonawalla's Serum Institute of India is the biggest supplier of vaccines to low-income countries. But for months, he was blocked from meeting his commitments to supply vaccines to the world's poor, putting him “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” 

  • When a second wave of COVID-19 hit India in the spring, Modi cut off all exports in order to keep vaccines for his own population.
  • Poonawalla defended Modi's decision, but it was devastating to his pledge of 1.1 billion doses of vaccine for the developing world. Suddenly he could only give them to Indians.
  • COVAX, the global consortium charged with equitably vaccinating the world, was left empty-handed.

Details: Now that India has emerged from a brutal second wave, Poonawalla says he's allowed to resume exporting Covishield — his version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine — to COVAX.

  • Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Covishield doesn't need to be stored in freezing temperatures, which makes it ideal for vaccinating people in low-income countries.
  • "I think by the tenth of November you're gonna see the first — if not a bit sooner — you're gonna see the first doses arrive in Africa," Poonawalla said.
  • Once shipments begin, Poonawalla said he expects to send around 30 million doses per month, to COVAX primarily.

The big picture: Advocates say the vaccination divide between rich and poor countries is unconscionable.

  • More than a year after the COVID vaccine was authorized, over half of people living in many developed countries are vaccinated while less than 5% of people in low-income countries have received a shot.

Between the lines: Poonawalla had some tough words of his own for how countries including the U.S. are contributing to the global vaccination drive.

  • He said he would "absolutely" call on wealthy countries to stop giving out booster shots and vaccinating children until people living in low-income countries have been vaccinated.
  • He also called on other COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to donate more doses to COVAX. “Why should only Serum Institute provide vaccines at a $3 price to the low-income countries?" he said. "These are giant companies... they’ll still make billions of dollars of profits.” 

Behind the scenes: "Axios on HBO" visited Poonawalla last week at the Serum Institute's headquarters in Pune — a four-hour drive from Mumbai's international airport in midnight traffic on roads packed with fast-swerving trucks.

  • Poonawalla is a billionaire with flashy tastes. He collects fast cars and converted one of them into a Batmobile. He works out of a grounded Airbus plane that has been converted into a lavish boardroom office.
  • Adar's father, Cyrus, started out breeding racehorses. He used to sell his aging horses to the Indian government to develop vaccines, but realized he could cut out the middle-man and mass produce cheap vaccines by extracting serum from his own horses. In 1966, he founded the Serum Institute.
  • Adar took over the Serum Institute in 2011 when he was 30. He's dramatically expanded the private company, which now supplies 140 countries. The developing world disproportionately relies on Serum to produce cheap vaccines of many varieties.

The intrigue: When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Poonawalla did what only somebody in his situation could have gotten away with.

  • He called his father and told him he wanted to invest several hundred million dollars and enter a deal to begin producing a potential COVID-19 vaccine that hadn't even gone through clinical trials.
  • Luckily, for Poonawalla and — finally, soon — recipients around the world, the bet paid off.
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