File image: Adar Poonawalla, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Serum Institute of India (SII) at his office in Pune (Image: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas)
Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla on May 1 spoke out about the pressures he was under over the production of COVID-19 vaccines to meet the ever-increasing demand in India as the country battles through a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
In his first comments since he was provided with ‘Y’ category security by the Indian government earlier this week, Poonawalla told ‘The Times’ in an interview about receiving aggressive calls from some of the most powerful people in India, demanding supplies of Covishield -- the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that the Serum Institute is producing in India.
He said, "The calls come from some of the most powerful men in India. They come from the chief minister of Indian states, heads of business conglomerates and others demanding instant supply of Covishield. "Threats" is an understatement."
That pressure is largely behind his decision to fly into London to be with his wife and children, the 40-year-old entrepreneur said.
“I’m staying here (London) an extended time because I don't want to go back to that situation. Everything falls on my shoulders but I can't do it alone...I don’t want to be in a situation where you are just trying to do your job, and just because you can’t supply the needs of X, Y or Z you really don’t want to guess what they are going to do,” Poonawalla told the newspaper.
“The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented. It’s overwhelming. Everyone feels they should get the vaccine. They can’t understand why anyone else should get it before them,” he said.
On the question where election rallies and Kumbh added to India's COVID-19 crisis, Poonawalla decided to steer clear. "If I give you the right answer, or any answer, my head would be chopped off... I can't comment on the elections or Kumbh mela. It's too sensitive," he said.
The businessman indicated in the interview that his move to London is also linked to business plans to expand vaccine manufacturing to countries outside India, which may include the likes of the UK.
“There’s going to be an announcement in the next few days,” he said, when asked about Britain as one of the production bases outside India.
According to the newspaper, by the time the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was approved in January this year, the Serum Institute of India had increased its annual production capacity from 1.5 to 2.5 billion doses at a cost of USD 800 million, and stockpiled 50 million doses of Covishield.
The company began exporting to 68 countries, including Britain, as India seemed to have been over the worse, until the situation worsened in recent weeks.
“We’re really gasping for all the help we can get,” Poonawalla said in the ‘Times’ interview.
“I don’t think even God could have forecast it was going to get this bad,” he said.
On the charge of profiteering as the cost of Covishield was recently hiked, he termed it as “totally incorrect” and added that Covishield will still be “the most affordable vaccine on the planet” even at a higher price.
“We have done the best we can without cutting corners or doing anything wrong or profiteering. I’ll wait for history to judge,” he said.
“I’ve always had this sense of responsibility to India and the world because of the vaccines we were making, but never have we made a vaccine so needed in terms of saving lives,” he added.