The coronavirus pandemic was meant to propel the Serum Institute of India and its chief executive Adar Poonawalla from an obscure drug manufacturer into the world’s vaccine saviour.
Poonawalla, the suave billionaire “vaccine prince” who took over the business from his father Cyrus 10 years ago, embraced the spotlight, extolling his company’s role at the forefront of the global vaccine race.
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, visited Serum’s factory last year in a sign of his approval and in January donated millions of its Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses to other countries as part of a diplomatic campaign to rival China and demonstrate his country’s pharma power.
But four months on, Poonawalla is facing a reckoning as India staggers under a brutal second wave of infections. Despite warning that it would take until 2024 to inoculate the world, his company has been vilified over allegations of price gouging and its failure to meet its overseas vaccine demands. His decision to decamp to his London mansion before the UK barred flights from India was condemned across his home country.
The Serum Institute has also been hit by lawsuits from global governments for failing to meet contractual agreements for supplies, while Poonawalla said threats had been made against him. The Indian government has provided him with security guards.
Poonawalla was also blamed for just 2 per cent of India being fully vaccinated. But he has pointed out that the government had not placed enough orders ahead of the second wave. “I’m just the manufacturer,” he told the Financial Times after claiming he had been “victimised” over the stuttering vaccine campaign. “I don’t decide these policies.”
He admitted though that he has had “to grow a thicker skin”.
“History will have to judge the work that the company has done, and whether we have profited here, or whether we have served the nation,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the Serum Institute made millions churning out vaccines given to more than half the world’s children.
Poonawalla split his time between the company’s headquarters in Pune and his $113m art deco beachfront palace in Mumbai that once belonged to maharajas, punctuated by holidays sailing around Italy and France.
His wife Natasha, who serves as executive director of the Serum Institute, has an Instagram account with almost 600,000 followers that features images of partying with luxury shoe designer Christian Louboutin and walking down the red carpet at the Met Gala.
The pandemic shattered that life. Poonawalla embraced the crisis and invested in Covid vaccines to prove that his company could inoculate the masses at an affordable price, compared with its western competitors.
He also established a sales office in London, with British prime minister Boris Johnson announcing recently that the Serum Institute would invest £240m to support trials, research and possibly manufacturing in the UK.
But the company’s reputation has come under scrutiny as India suffers shortages of vaccines. Covax, the UN-backed vaccine alliance, had expected to receive more than 100m vaccines from the Serum Institute between February and May, but has only received 19.8m doses, excluding India.
Sajjan Jindal, chair of industrial conglomerate JSW and one of the country’s most prominent tycoons, said Poonawalla should have done more to work with the government and boost vaccine production.
Jindal accused Poonawalla of using “a kind of ransom language” to secure public subsidies and of investing in the UK rather than in India. “If I was in his place . . . I would go along with the government and support the government and do my bit in the time of crisis,” he said.
Others have criticised him for flying to London as India battled the devastating second wave of the virus.
Poonawalla has denied that he fled and said he was in the UK on “regular” business. He has also said the company had received “all kinds of support” from the Indian government.
Poonawalla was educated in the UK at St Edmund’s School, Canterbury, and graduated in business management from the University of Westminster. He met his wife at a New Year’s party in Goa, where they used to attend bashes hosted by Vijay Mallya, the fallen Kingfisher liquor baron.
The family’s wealth and introduction to high society were based on the ambition of Poonawalla’s father. In 1966, Cyrus, a fedora-wearing, cigar-smoking, horseracing aficionado, embarked on the transformation of his stud farm into a global vaccine manufacturer.
But it was not until the 1990s, when the Serum Institute won approval from the World Health Organization to export vaccines to developing markets, that the company gained an international reputation.
When Poonawalla became chief executive in 2011, a year after the death of his mother Villoo, he focused on expansion, diversifying the portfolio of vaccines and investing in research.
In the early stages of the pandemic last year, the Serum Institute was hailed for its role in “vaccinating the world”. However, signs of strain soon appeared. A fire broke out at the company’s factory in January, killing five people. Two months later, New Delhi froze vaccine exports, which led to international lawsuits and forced Covax to delay immunisation drives.
Poonawalla’s pledge to boost Serum Institute’s production capacity of the Covid vaccine from 60m-70m a month to 100m by March has been delayed until July.
Poonawalla said he would return to India in the coming days, while the company has begun distributing vaccines under a tiered procurement scheme. Half of the doses will be reserved for the central government, while state governments and hospitals will be able to buy the rest at higher prices.
Analysts said New Delhi had dodged questions about how the vaccines should be allocated, leaving it to Poonawalla to explain his role as the final arbiter of jabs for India’s 1.4bn population.
“We just try to equally distribute it across all the states, that’s all,” he said. “The government is guiding us.”
He insisted, however, that he could deliver. “It’s not rocket science, it’s just getting the job done.”