Adar Poonawalla is in Britain ‘on business’, but is that the only reason?

Serum Institute chief leaves India allegedly to escape 'threats' from ‘biggies’; Poonawalla says he will return, but hints at vaccine production overseas


Adar Poonawalla, chief executive officer, Serum Institute of India (SII) has flown to Britain. He made it to London just before the UK banned all travellers coming from India. Poonawalla, whose SII is the biggest manufacturer of vaccines in the world told The Times, London, that he has been getting phone calls that are “incessant and very menacing”.

The Serum Institute is producing a bulk of India’s Covid-19 vaccines in Pune. However, Poonawalla has also hinted that he may produce the vaccine overseas, he posted, “Had an excellent meeting with all our partners & stakeholders in the U.K. Meanwhile, pleased to state that COVISHIELD’s production is in full swing in Pune. I look forward to reviewing operations upon my return in a few days.” 

His mention of “return in a few days” is crucial because now he is being trolled for leaving the country at a time when Covid-19 is infecting people faster than it can be contained, and the fragile and overloaded healthcare system, and the lack of adequate oxygen supplies is leading to hundreds of deaths each day across the country. However, he told The Times on racing London, “I’m staying here an extended time because I don’t want to go back to that situation”

Poonawala added, “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 has hinted that he is on the receiving end of calls from “chief ministers of Indian states, heads of business conglomerates and others demanding instant supplies of Covishield, as the AstraZeneca vaccine is known in India.” He told The Times that to term such calls “Threats’ is an understatement”. Poonawalla said, “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 and the institute have been given a tight security detail.

Poonawalla joined his wife and two children in London and made it just before Britain banned travellers from India eight days ago. He said that he is also there on business and is planning to start vaccine production in outside India as well, adding that “there’s going to be an announcement in the next few days.” According to the report, “Lord Udny-Lister, until recently one of Boris Johnson’s top aides, visited the Serum Institute in March, and that the prime minister was also due to visit it on his cancelled trip to India this week.”

When asked to comment on mass gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela which were allowed even as the pandemic escalated, and may have contributed to the spread of Covid-19 in the coming months as well, Poonawalla said, “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.”

Serum Institute of India’s Covishield vaccine was to be available to state governments at Rs. 400 per dose and private hospitals at Rs. 600 a dose. This announcement was made two days after the central government decided to open up vaccinations against Covid-19 to those above the age of 18 years. While AstraZeneca and Oxford University developed the Covishield vaccine, Serum Institute of India (Pune) has been manufacturing it under a licence from the Swedish-British drug maker. This pricing was said to be the highest amount for the vaccine in comparison to others.

Poonawala was previously quoted by the Indian Express as saying, “We have given a special price of Rs 200 for the first 100 million doses only to the Government of India… and after that, we will be selling at Rs 1,000 in private markets.” But this latest decision of Rs.600 per dose translates to about 8 dollars per shot and is more than its price in any major global market.

However, he later said that as a “philanthropic gesture” he was reducing the price to the states from Rs.400 to Rs.300 per dose.

Back in 2020, he had asked if the government of India has “Rs 80,000 crores available, over the next one year? Because that’s what @MoHFW_INDIA needs, to buy and distribute the vaccine to everyone in India. This is the next concerning challenge we need to tackle.” No answers had been given then.


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