India’s vaccine czar has left the country for the UK due to “unprecedented” threats

Every man for himself.
Every man for himself.
Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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India’s Covid-19 situation is so dire that the rich are fleeing the country. And among them is vaccine czar Adar Poonawalla.

Poonawalla, the CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII) that manufactures the AstraZeneca vaccine, has moved to the UK with his family for “an extended period of time,” according to an interview in The Times (paywall) today (May 1). He did so just as the UK put India on its “red list” and banned all travellers from the country.

Poonawalla said he made the move because there was a grave threat to his life in India.

“I’m staying here an extended time because I don’t want to go back to that situation…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…

‘Threats’ is an understatement…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.”

These alleged threats likely come from the fact that India is yet to vaccinate a large majority of its population, and vaccines are in short supply. SII’s Covishield is the more common vaccine in the country, and Poonawalla has had to balance international contracts and domestic commitments in the past two months.

India’s central government had granted Poonawalla “Y” level security on April 29, which meant that two personal security officers would accompany him at all times, and an armed guard would keep a vigil at his home.

Earlier this month, as per his request, the Indian government had also given a “stressed” Poonawalla an advanced loan of Rs3,000 crore ($400 million) to ramp up production.

In a tweet on April 16, he also requested US president Joe Biden to lift the embargo on vaccine raw materials, making many believe that manufacturing of Covishield was delayed due to the issue. However, he later clarified that this embargo was only impacting the production of Covovax, the Indian brand of Novovax vaccine.

India recently “liberalised” its vaccine policy, allowing Poonawalla to sell Covishield directly to the states at a premium of Rs300 per dose (as against the central government price of Rs150). With this policy, Poonawalla can sell half of his stock directly to the states and private hospitals, which has led to a scramble for an already scarce vaccine supply.

But India’s calamitous second wave of Covid-19 was not a situation Poonawalla—or the Indian government—had anticipated. “I thought, ‘We’ve done our bit,’” Poonawalla told The Times. “We’d struggled through 2020 to get everything ready. I thought I could put my feet up and take a vacation, but it’s been the exact opposite. It’s been chaotic,” he said. Instead, he had to parachute himself and his family out of India—with all its devastating death tolls and crumbling healthcare infrastructure—and into the safe haven of a developed country.

But these alleged threats are not the only reason Poonawalla may be in the UK. Poonawalla also told The Times that he will be soon making an announcement for producing his vaccines overseas.

Update: In a tweet on May 1, after this story was published, Poonawalla said he will return to India in “a few days.”