Adar Poonawalla: The next decade will be the golden age of India’s vaccine industry

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, Pune, spoke to Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa on the Covid vaccine journey and his plans ahead. Excerpts

Adar Poonawalla at the SII headquarters in Pune; (Photo: Bandeep Singh)

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, Pune, spoke to Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa on the Covid vaccine journey and his plans ahead. Excerpts:

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, Pune, spoke to Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa on the Covid vaccine journey and his plans ahead. Excerpts:

Q. What is the USP of the Serum Institute of India?

Since I took over in 2011, I have been building capacity ahead of time for all vaccines, and even the new ones that we were going to launch. That really has come in handy during the Covid crisis because we were able to use those facilities quickly, rejig them and buy new specific equipment where needed. I won’t call it risk but just future planning that enabled us to produce so much so quickly.

Q. What lessons has the pandemic taught us about battling the virus?

Some of the lessons learnt are to do things in advance. Whether it was capacity planning or distribution to the entire country, a huge coordination and logistics effort was needed. I think we worked very well. We didn’t cut corners, we did everything so fast, and that is what I want to see in the years to come. I hope this momentum continues after the pandemic. We can’t go back to the way of doing things where we take a long time to get clarity on permission for licences. India has so many opportunities, the world wants to invest in us as an alternative to China. We must take advantage of that. The governm­ent can look at how to simplify policies, improve further permissions and licences.

” India has so many opportunities, the world wants to invest in us as an alternative to China. We must take advantage of that. “

Q. How can we make India a vaccine superpower?

We have already achieved that in some way as 60-70 per cent of the vaccine supply globally comes from India. We need funding to go up the value chain so that we have our own research and innovation. For that, you need to be able to make a decent profit. In India, unlike the US or Europe, it is frowned upon if companies grow beyond a certain size and make profit. But these profits will ultimately be used for reinvestment in capacity and innovation in the country. The pricing policies, the environment in which you get your permissions and licences faster to build new factories, innovate, plough back into research and incentivise exports—these are the sort of things that will cement our place as a vaccine superpower. The next 10 years are going to be the golden age of India’s vaccine industry. We must take advantage of it.

Q. Does Covishield protect against Omicron?

There is no reason to believe that the vaccines that are licensed today—not just Covishield but others as well—will not protect you against Omicron. The data is still coming in. If these vaccines come down to 40-50 per cent in their efficiency, that is when you go for a booster dose. This is until you get new vaccines which many companies, including SII, are working on.

Q. What kind of pressures did you face in the past year?

We knew we had to get things done in record time because each month gone by would result in more lives being lost to Covid. That was the only thing at the back of my mind. My team of 8,000 people worked tirelessly. Without the team implementing my objectives, targets and strategies, we would be nowhere.

Q. What are Serum Institute’s next big plans?

We have Covovax, which could be used as a vaccine of choice for children all the way down to the age of 3. We are going to produce Sputnik Light if we get a licence soon. Our fourth vaccine—the nasal one being developed in partnership with Codagenix—may take a year to come. It will be an excellent option to cover all Covid variants.

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