They were a company that shied away from the media glare, except when it comes to parading their winning thoroughbreds at the Race Courses. But the Poonawallas, had a different side of their story. From Anti Snake Venom Serum to Covid Vaccine, they have come a long way.
The Cyrus Poonawalla Group of Companies headquartered in Pune, India are a diversified group with business interests that include Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology, Finance, Clean Energy, Hospitality & Realty and Aviation. The Poonawalla family has been breeding and racing thoroughbreds in India since 1946 and is the leading Stud Farm in the country – the Villoo Poonawalla Greenfield Farms located at Theur near Pune.
But Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd. has grown rapidly and is now the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by number of doses produced and sold globally (more than 1.5 billion doses) which includes Polio vaccine as well as Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccines. It is estimated that about 65% of the children in the world receive at least one vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute.
As the pharma majors across the world raced around like they were on a formula one track to quickly get a vaccine to combat the scourge of Coronavirus, the Pune based Serum Institute of India were quick off the block. SII struck a deal to produce a billion doses of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, the vaccine that was being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc, the British-Swedish pharma giant. What helped is the fact that SII was the manufacturing partner of AstraZeneca.
The clinical trials in Europe had a head start, but SII caught up soon. It also helped that the results of the second phase of trial were progressing fast in Europe and there were no major hiccups, except a minor one. Without waiting for the final approval from India’s drug regulator, Adar decided that SII would manufacture 5 million doses of the Covid Vaccine and stock it. It was a major gamble that goes with the image of a horse breeder, for he could spot a winner from a mile. The downside was a huge risk, as any rejection of the vaccine candidate, during the trial phases, would mean that SII would have destroy the entire stock Covishield, as the vaccine is named now.
As India gets ready to give the Emergency Use Authorization for Covishield from Subject Expert Committee of Drug Controller General of India, Adar Poonawala must be getting ready for a bigger battle on hands. After DCGA gives it’s final approval for Covishield, SII would have to churn out millions of doses for a country like India, with a population of 135 crores. With sophisticated tunnel systems, high speed vial washing, filling, stoppering and sealing machines at SII in Pune are capable of working at a speed of 500 containers per minute and have been installed with filling accuracy to the third digit of decimal point to ensure accuracy and consistency.
Given that the pricing will be a political hot potato, SII will have to tread carefully, especially when it comes to India. SII clocked a revenue of around Rs 5,900 crore in FY19 and that top line will surely see a substantial jump this time around.
At the end of it all, SII like its Indian counterparts, Bharat Biotech, Biological E Ltd, Zydus Cadila would have proved again to the world, that when it comes to producing vaccines in a cost effective manner, especially to the under-developed countries, Indian Pharma companies are life savers.