The AstraZeneca vaccine has made Prof Sarah Gilbert – who led the Oxford team that created it – one of the UK’s most famous modern scientists and turned the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company into a household name.
But almost half of all the AstraZeneca shots, destined for the arms of hundreds of millions of people around the world, are being produced by a 40-year-old Indian billionaire with a penchant for private jets and Picassos.
Adar Poonawalla, the self-proclaimed “prince of vaccines”, is chief executive of the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine producer, which even before coronavirus struck was making more than 1.5bn jabs a year for everything from polio and diphtheria to tetanus, BCG, hepatitis B and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations.
Vaccines have made Poonawalla and his family extraordinarily wealthy. They are now the sixth richest family in India with an estimated $15bn (£11bn) fortune, according to the Times of India.
Among their portfolio of properties is Lincoln House, a Mumbai mansion which is the former US embassy to India. At $113m it was the most expensive Indian home ever sold when they bought it in 2015.
Poonawalla, who was educated at £30,000-a-year St Edmund’s School in Canterbury and the University of Westminster, this week signed a deal to rent a Mayfair mansion for a record £50,000 a week.
The property, which at 2,3oo sq metres (25,000 sq ft) is 24 times the size of the average English home, comes with an adjoining guest house and backs on to one of Mayfair’s “secret gardens”. He is renting it from Polish billionaire Dominika Kulczyk, who bought it for £57m last year.
Poonawalla, who is married with two children, travels by helicopter and private jet. He owns paintings by Picasso, Dalí, Rembrandt and Rubens, and has a collection of 35 rare luxury cars including several Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, as well as a Mercedes S350 converted into a replica Batmobile.
His personal website admits his lifestyle looks flash. “It is easy to dismiss Adar Poonawalla as a rich brat … posing next to racehorses,” it says. But, it then adds, “the flamboyance is cultivated” and that he is actually “a serious young man who has been trained by a difficult boss – his father Cyrus Poonawala”.
Producing vaccines was not Poonawalla’s idea. His father, Cyrus, founded SII in 1966 as a sideline to his 81-hectare (200-acre) thoroughbred racehorse stables Poonawalla Stud. (Serum from purified horse blood was used in the production of early vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, and scarlet fever.)
But it was Poonawalla who convinced his father to “go big” on vaccines after he watched a Bill Gates talk in 2015, in which the billionaire Microsoft co-founder-turned philanthropist warned that the world was not prepared for a new viral pandemic.
“I wanted to be prepared for a pandemic-level event ever since I heard Bill Gates in a Ted talk where he clearly said that we should be more worried and prepared for such situations,” Poonawalla told the Hindustan Times.
He doubled the firm’s production facilities and began producing more vaccines for developing countries on behalf of the World Health Organization and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi), the vaccine charity supported by Gates and of which Poonawalla is a board member.
The “vaccine prince” title stuck when Poonawalla was appointed chief executive of SII in 2011, replacing his “vaccine king” father, who is now chairman of wider Poonawalla Group, which includes SII.
When coronavirus struck, Poonawalla had a decision to make: “Do absolutely nothing and watch how it unfolds, or take the risk and become a frontrunner.” He took the risk.
At the time the institute was working with Oxford University on developing a new malaria vaccine, and its scientists asked to collaborate on the Gilbert vaccine.
Last May, Poonawalla met the AstraZeneca chief executive, Pascal Soriot, on a video call, and negotiated a deal for SII to manufacture about 1bn doses over 12 months – almost half the overall total.
The same month a package arrived at SII’s vast campus in Pune, 150km south-east of Mumbai. Packed in dry ice was a vial containing the components needed to create the Oxford vaccine, cell substrate in which to grow it and detailed instructions. Not included were the results of any clinical trials or regulatory approvals that the vaccine was effective or even safe.
Nevertheless, Poonawalla ordered three of his factories – which were at the time making “some very lucrative [other] vaccines” – to immediately switch production to the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine AZD1222.
“Nobody wishes for a pandemic, but we were almost designed for one,” he told the Guardian earlier this year from his office inside a converted Airbus A320 jet, that he describes as “kind of similar to Air Force One”.
“We produce a 1.5bn vaccine doses each year. We never imagined the whole world being so dependent on us, but nobody else has our capacity to scale up,” he said. The decision to invest, he added, was easy because the firm is a private business “and not accountable to investors and bankers and shareholders”.
Instead, he says, “it was just a quick five-minute chat between myself and my father.” It was also, he admits, “a huge gamble – huge, huge, huge. People said I was crazy or stupid doing such a big bet at that time.”
By the time the vaccine received its first regulatory approval from the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in December 2020, SII had already made 40m doses. (The WHO approved it in February, but the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has yet to grant its approval.)
The institute is now producing 80m doses a month, and is aiming for 100m doses a month soon, although a fire at one of its manufacturing facilities in January knocked it off target.
But SII’s huge production has thrown it and Poonawalla into the global political spotlight, as world leaders battle for doses and India – grappling with its own surge in Covid cases – wants the country’s production lines to supply it first.
Last month Poonawalla tweeted: “Dear countries & governments, as you await #COVISHIELD supplies, I humbly request you to please be patient, @SerumInstIndia has been directed to prioritise the huge needs of India … We are trying our best.”
This week the Indian government introduced a de facto two- to three-month ban on vaccine exports, which will have repercussions in the UK, Europe and in the low- and middle-income countries signed up to the WHO’s Covax scheme.
The controls will delay 5m doses due to be shipped to the UK. The impending shortage means the UK vaccination programme has been set back by a month and that vaccinations will not be widely offered to under-50s until 1 May.
Back in India, Poonawalla is building yet another factory. This $400m facility, which is due to open in 2024, is designed to produce 1bn vaccine doses a year. It may be too late to help with the current coronavirus vaccine drive, but it is the next pandemic that is now on Poonawalla’s mind.
“Maybe not in my lifetime, but at least in my children’s lifetimes, there’s going to be another global pandemic,” he told Bloomberg. “And I’m willing to bet anything that pandemic will be far worse than this.”