By Sushil Kutty
Adar Poonawala is the ‘King of Vaccines’. And in today’s Covid-19 world, he’s bigger than Jeff Bezos and Mukesh Ambani. Poonawala runs the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest producer of vaccines with a production facility in Pune. Now, on the turn of a coin, he wants to set up production hubs in other countries, which ought to make India think. It appears like he is miffed with India. But why, what’s eating into him?
Recent events in Adar’s life point to maybe a souring of ties with India, certain hi-fi Indians in particular. It looks like his ‘standing’ has taken a hit, and he blames certain powerful Indians for the jolt. It appears like Poonawala’s status in the vaccine world has been brought down a notch or two; his ‘King of Vaccines’ crown is slipping. You see, Covid-19 is an opportunity to some, ‘God-given or Devil-imposed?’ only the Almighty will be able to say. As the world stands on the brink and we stare into the abyss with the abyss staring back at us, our sole solace and survival is the Covid-19 vaccine.
Luckily, we have more than one vaccine in use, and several in the tube. And Poonawala’s Serum Institute of India is top player. Last year, when Covid-19 hit the planet, India had an upper-hand of sorts: SII was in its geography! And Adar Poonawala had promised to fulfil India’s needs of Covid-19 vaccines. Being top vaccine producer, SII easily got the nod to produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Poonawala named it ‘Covishield’ and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited SII in January 2021, just days before India launched its Covid-19 vaccination drive, and everything seemed hunky-dory with SII and Adar Poonawala. So, why does it appear now like Poonawala has swallowed a cat?
By the way Poonawala is a recent addition to Forbes List of Billionaires. Some would say ‘thanks to Covid-19’, but then, again, why’s Adar Poonawala acting strange, so to speak? Could it be because Modi chose to take a ‘Covaxin’ jab over Poonawala’s ‘Covishield’? You see ego is a massive thing. And could it be that it hurt when Bharat Biotech’s ‘Covaxin’ got tagged as “indigenously made” while SII’s ‘Covishield’ was just another Covid-19 vaccine. Also, Covaxin “inventor” Krishna Ella was hailed as India’s “self-made vaccine hero”? As if Adar Poonawala was running on gas from his father’s pump piped from Exxon or Shell or what have you?
The fact of the matter is: Covishield is a vaccine developed by sharper brains and not by Poonawala. But there’s a way out of that handicap. Poonawala could correct the situation in his mind by setting up production hubs outside India. Besides, then, he would not keep on taking a loss in India; be compelled to sell at a discount. The situation called for hard decisions and, going by events/decisions, Poonawala took them, too, one by one.
First, Adar Poonawala, in the middle of March 2021, took on rent a mansion in the Mayfair locality of London for a whopping $69,000 a week! Then, he said that SII was facing a funds-crunch. That it would require Rs. 3000 crore to fulfil commitments made to the people of India. To the hoi polloi, he came out as the genuine thing. After all it requires dough to produce vaccines. The same as it requires taxpayer’s money to build the Central Vista in New Delhi.
Then, news broke that Adar Poonawala has been given the CRPF’s Y+ security a la Kangana ‘Manikarnika’ Ranaut. Some influential people were threatening Poonawala. They wanted Covishield out of hand. Served to them on a platter. Poonawala did not name the rascals. Instead, the ‘King of Vaccines’ flew to the United Kingdom just in time to beat that country’s no-more-flights-from-Covid-ravaged India deadline. He took his family with him. And, of course, he left without his Y+ CRPF security detail.
Nobody can call Adar Poonawala a man without vision. He knew exactly what to do, and when. Poonawala is one among the chosen few of the novel coronavirus to scale heights. Another one is Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, whose Pfizer vaccine is the No.1 Covid-19 vaccine administered in the United States. It’s said that in 2021 alone, Pfizer will generate profits of as much as $4 billion from its Covid-19 vaccine. How much Serum Institute will generate is anybody’s guess.
Of course, the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is not in India, but there’s talk that it’s in the Indian government’s queue. The other day Pfizer announced it will send $75 million worth of Covid-19 medications like anti-blood coagulants to India, a donation. But why anti-blood coagulants? Lots of Americans who took the Pfizer vaccine had complained of rare blood clots!
A similar complaint was lodged against AstraZeneca vaccine, but luckily Covishield was spared the ignominy. Poonawala’s AstraZeneca vaccine has no rare blood clot worries dogging it. And now that India has launched into vaccinating Indians in the age-group 18-44, the largest chunk of Indians, there’s the need for Serum Institute of India to jack up production. True, SII has to meet supply commitments it has made to other countries as well, but that does not mean Adar Poonawala can shirk his duty towards his motherland.
“There’s going to be an announcement in the next few days,” Poonawala told a newspaper the other week, but his statement that SII will be able to raise monthly output to 100 million doses only by July is not elevating news to millions of Indians in the 18-44 age group waiting to be inoculated, and to millions others who took their first shot of Covishield and are slotted for their second jab. That Serum Institute is poised to launch its ‘nasal vaccine’ in the UK doesn’t make any difference.
Then, again, that still doesn’t explain why Adar Poonawala is miffed with India. The Modi Government knows the answer, but like in all things Modi, there’s only silence. What’s troubling Adar Poonawala, who are the “influential people” who threatened him? Poonawala says he will be in India shortly, but that means he will not be able to return to London till as long as the second wave of Covid-19 doesn’t recede. Will he take the risk? (IPA Service)