The business of vaccines during a pandemic: How the Serum Institute of India’s $1.2 Billion Covid-19 wager paid off

Mr. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII) – the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer – was recently hosted by the student-led LBS India Club. Mr Poonawalla discussed with Krati Jain MBA2022 and vice president of the India Club, his ambition to accelerate vaccine equity across the globe, and his thoughts on how the world can better prepare for any future pandemics.

Key Highlights

  • Serum Institute of India took an early gamble on the Oxford – AstraZeneca vaccine, producing millions of doses before its authorisation for use
  • Vaccine equity and sufficient health infrastructure is essential to our global preparedness for future pandemics

“Betting early on the unapproved Oxford – AstraZeneca vaccine for the first mover advantage”

In March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Mr Poonawalla was faced with a critical choice – 1) wait for a vaccine to be authorised for use or 2) take a risk in partnering with a vaccine under trial  to secure a ‘first-mover advantage’.  Mr Poonawalla took a risk investing $250M in the Oxford – AstraZeneca vaccine and the Novavax vaccine. The company’s Pune based facility manufactured both vaccines at risk i.e. before authorisation for human use.

It became clear early on that the initial capital investment would not be enough and an additional $1B (4x of the initial amount) would be needed to manufacture the adequate number of vaccine doses. The high-risk nature of this venture prevented Mr Poonawalla securing debt-based funding and he started exploring other options such as equity dilution, seeking advances from customers and collaborating with NGOs. After months of hustle, he bridged the gap raising funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and by investing his personal wealth and receiving advances from customers.

“Still working on building back the trust”

The journey following the Oxford – AstraZeneca vaccine’s authorisation was not an easy one. According to Mr Poonawalla, external challenges such as, a fire at Serum’s production facility in early 2021, an export ban by the government of India and raw material supply shortages from the United States, among others, critically impacted the production and supply capacity of Serum.

In 2021, when Europe, the United States, India and other countries, resorted to vaccine nationalism to protect and safeguard their populations, Mr Poonawalla faced a challenging situation in meeting vaccine supply commitments to African and other developing countries. While the vaccine supply has now stabilised and the export bans have been lifted, he candidly mentions that he is still trying to build back the trust and reputation with his buyers.

“We should be able to bridge the COVID-19 vaccine equity gap in the next few months”

Mr Poonawalla believes that supply issues of the COVID-19 vaccine have mostly been resolved and by improving vaccine administration efforts in specific countries vaccine equity can be achieved faster. He is hopeful that over the next few months, the majority of developing countries will be able to offer a vaccine for COVID-19 to their entire population.

Mr Poonawalla suggests there is a need for the world to come together to create a global process around clinical trials and reciprocity of vaccine certificates to avoid confusion and trust issues surrounding vaccine efficacy and supply delays. He further adds that a pandemic operating framework should be set up, addressing export bans, vaccine trials, certificates and other bureaucratic hurdles to help the world move faster in a crisis situation. He hopes that these issues will be resolved before we face another pandemic.

“As a world we need to do more to be better prepared for a pandemic in the future”

Mr Poonawalla believes that more works needs to be done to create global health frameworks and to build hospital and pharmaceutical drug and vaccine infrastructure. He recognised that investing heavily in infrastructure in anticipation of a pandemic is difficult and expensive.

A key concern is that as the perception of the severity of COVID-19 decreases across the world, he senses a growing disinterest from world leaders & governments in investing in preventative health measures. Mr. Poonawalla warns that this practice causes an increased reliance on the private sector, which can only operate to a limited extent on its own and we therefore run the risk of not being prepared to handle another pandemic.

“Never lose your integrity; take out time to absorb your failures emotionally”

In closing Mr Poonawalla’s advice to LBS students was that they should never compromise on their integrity and work ethic, even if it means a longer path to success. He added it is also important as a leader to accept, reflect upon and learn from failures.

The student-led India Club at London Business School with the support of Wheeler Institute hosted this inspiring chat with an aim to highlight the work of business leaders who contribute to improving lives through business

Adar Poonawalla is the CEO of Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. His commitment towards making healthcare accessible and his efforts for reducing vaccine inequality have been recognised worldwide. Mr Poonawalla has received numerous accolades including Time’s 100 Most Influential People List 2021, Fortune’s Top 10 Greatest Leaders (2021) and the Economic Times Entrepreneur of the Year (2021).

Krati Jain is an MBA 2022 student at London Business School, who is leading the India Business Series for the student-led India Club.

The student led organising team also included Sagrika, Kajol, Architt, Sarthak, Dheeraj & Ujwal.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *