Adar Poonawalla has confusing—and often contradictory—reasons for India’s vaccine shortage

The vaccine prince.
The vaccine prince.
Image: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo
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This post has been updated.

India’s “vaccine prince” Adar Poonawalla rose to fame in 2020 when he became the only Indian billionaire to put his weight behind an international Covid-19 vaccine. But since then, he has made headlines for statements that are at times confusing and contradictory.

Poonawalla, CEO of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturing firm Serum Institute of India (SII), last year struck a deal with AstraZeneca to manufacture and stockpile its Covid-19 vaccine. These doses could be sold in India and to other countries under contracts with AstraZeneca. SII was also responsible for the India-specific bridging study for the shots to test its efficacy in the local population.

Throughout last year, the 40-year-old exuded confidence about his company’s capacity to cater to a mass global demand. For instance, in October 2020, he said that SII had produced about 50 million doses for the purposes of stockpiling. He was confident at the time that his company could scale up to produce a total of 100 million doses by January. A month later, when prime minister Narendra Modi visited SII’s headquarters in Pune, Poonawalla said his Covid-19 vaccine facility would ramp up to 100 million doses a month, likely by March.

Now, it’s May, and SII’s production capacity has remained at around 70 million doses a month.

Poonawalla, meanwhile, has flip-flopped on the reasons for a delay in ramping up.

Serum’s vaccine production capacity

In January, a fire broke out at SII’s facility in Pune, which led to the deaths of five people. At the time of the incident, Poonawalla said the fire would not impact the production of Covid-19 vaccines.

However, in an April 6 interview to CNBC-TV18, he attributed the delay in vaccine supply to the fire in January. In an interview to The Times newspaper on May 1, he reiterated (paywall) this, and said the accident had pushed the timeline to ramp up production to 100 million doses from the target of April to July.

Under immense pressure to prioritise India’s needs during a devastating second wave, Poonawalla has offered many other possible causes for the delay in manufacturing.

Besides the fire in April, he also said, the US government’s embargo on exporting vaccine raw materials was hurting his production. On April 16, he tweeted to US president Biden for this.

This led to a clamor in India for the US to open up raw material exports and offer more aid to the country in the form of its unutilised AstraZeneca vaccine stock.

But shortly after, Poonawalla clarified that the raw material shortage was impacting the production of the Novovax vaccines, and not Covishield. Novovax is currently not authorised for use in India.

The case of vaccine shortages in India

Poonawalla has also said that AstraZeneca has sent SII a legal notice for not meeting its contractual obligations. This, he says, has been largely due to the fact India stopped the exports of vaccines because of domestic shortages. Poonawalla, who hopes to restart exports by July, said that right now, he wanted to “prioritise the needs of the nation first.”

But in the same vein, he also said that he needed more money to produce vaccines at scale. He told NDTV news channel on April 21 that his company needed Rs3,000 crore ($400 million) for this. He also said that vaccine makers had sacrificed millions of dollars in profits to support the nation.

A week later, the Indian government initiated an advance of Rs1,700 crore for fresh purchase of 110 million doses to ease some of this financial stress.

Poonawalla’s profits and “super profits”

Poonawalla’s most recent narrative shift was over the pricing of the Covishielf vaccine.

On April 21, he said SII would be selling Covishield to India’s state governments at Rs400 per dose, and private hospitals at Rs600. The announcement attracted severe backlash and many Indians accused him of profiteering during a pandemic. A week after announcing the initial pricing, he said that SII would sell to state governments at a reduced price of Rs300 a dose, as a “philanthropic gesture.” This price is still double what his company sells to the central government.

In an interview with CNBC-TV18 on April 21, Poonawalla said that this criticism was incorrect because he had negotiated a price of Rs150 per dose with the central government only for the initial contracts.

It was also his belief that he was unable to make “super profits” that would allow him to re-invest in his company. “It is not that we’re not making profits, but we are not making super profits, which is key to re-investing,” he had told NDTV on April 7.

This was in reference to the vaccine doses that he was selling to the Indian government at Rs150 per dose. Under the Modi government’s latest “liberalised” vaccine policy, vaccine makers were allowed to sell 50% of their stock directly to state governments and private healthcare institutions.

Meanwhile, the impatience with Poonawalla and the tussle for vaccines between Indian states forced him to leave India for the UK, where he is currently residing. Source-based reports suggest that he has rented a mansion in Mayfair, London, which costs $69,000 a week. He has said in interviews that there is immense responsibility on his shoulders, and “unprecedented levels of aggression” that even put his life at risk.

He also believes he has been wrongly “victimised.” In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Poonawalla said that he did not think he would have to ramp up production so quickly because “there were no orders” from the Indian government. “I’m just the manufacturer…I don’t decide these politics,” he said.

He also issued a statement on May 3 saying that because vaccine making is a specialised process, “it is therefore not possible to ramp up production overnight.”

The alleged threats to his life aren’t the only reasons Poonawalla is in the UK. His company has decided to invest £240 million ($334 million or Rs2,400 crore) in the UK, a project that would include a sales office, “clinical trials, research and development and possibly manufacturing of vaccines,” debunking his own narrative of financial distress.