ST Asians of the Year: This chief executive helps poorer countries level up in access to vaccines

Mr Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.
Mr Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Mr Adar Poonawalla gave himself a head start in the race to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.

In April, Mr Poonawalla, 39, announced that his company, Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, would start cranking out vaccine doses being developed by the University of Oxford and the global biopharma company AstraZeneca.

Failure would have meant a useless stockpile of vaccines, but the bet has so far paid off.

The vaccine, AZD1222, has so far shown an efficacy of up 90 per cent in advanced trials.

"Risk taking is a part of every business. I believe that since we have the capability and the capacity to help, it is our responsibility to take the mantle ahead, especially in the ongoing pandemic," said Mr Poonawalla in an e-mail interview.

The Serum Institute of India, which produces and sells 1.5 billion doses annually, is expected to help efforts towards levelling the playing field for India and other middle- and lower-income countries in ensuring cost-effective vaccines.

The institute has started off by producing 40 million doses of the vaccine, which will retail for US$3 (S$4) to US$4 per dose for government procurement and US$5 to US$6 for direct private sales.

It has also inked vaccine deals with Codagenix, an American clinical-stage biotech firm, global pharma giant Merck and US firm Novavax.

By next month, the Indian firm will have 100 million doses ready.

Nearly half of the AstraZeneca and Novavax doses will be for India and other middle- and low-income countries apart from 200 million doses through Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance - a public-private partnership that helps vaccinate half the world's children - and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

All this has thrust Mr Poonawalla, the articulate face of the family-run firm, into the global limelight.

The Serum Institute was founded by his father Cyrus Poonawalla in 1966, branching off from the family's stud farm business.

The younger Poonawalla, who took over as chief executive at 30, has driven the company's expansion. Its presence has grown from 35 countries to 170.

The firm has ramped up its production of polio vaccines. Last month, it added a new facility that can manufacture half a billion vaccine doses a year.

Mr Poonawalla noted that the pharma industry is a tough place to do business, but is proud that 65 per cent of all children globally have received a Serum Institute vaccine at least once.

Mr Poonawalla and his wife Natasha, the executive director of the institute, are also known for their jet-setting lifestyle and for hobnobbing with Bollywood celebrities.

He told GQ magazine this year that under normal circumstances, he would have been sailing down the coast in Cannes on a yacht with his family, watching the Grand Prix and attending the film festival, but said what he was doing now "more than compensates".