Adar Poonawalla: the vaccine prince who will save the world

Adar Poonawalla, the chief of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer by volume, has an ambitious plan to rescue us all from Covid-19. The future for his dynasty looks bright, says Jane Lewis.

If the world manages to escape the clutches of Covid-19 this year, it may be largely down to the efforts of Adar Poonawalla – the Indian tycoon known as “the vaccine prince”, says The Times. Poonawalla’s company, Serum Institute of India (SII), is “comfortably the biggest vaccine manufacturer by volume in the world”: some two-thirds of all the children on the planet have been vaccinated with one or more of its products. The company makes 1.5 billion doses of vaccines annually against diseases such as polio, diphtheria and hepatitis B. 

Now Poonawalla, 39, “has an ambitious plan” to supply the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to half the planet by this time next year. And he plans to do so at $3 a dose, “which barely covers costs”. When the pandemic set in, he says, “I decided to go all out” – immediately embarking on a dramatic expansion of manufacturing facilities funded by £270m of his company’s money and another £3m from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The family has cash to spare. According to Forbes, his father, Cyrus Poonawalla, who founded the company in 1966, is worth $11.5bn, making him India’s sixth richest man last year.

Indeed, Poonawalla senior (“the vaccine king”) has almost doubled his wealth during the pandemic, says Business Today (India), thanks to partnerships with global pharmaceutical majors. Poonawalla junior is clear that his primary motivation is not to make money, but to save lives. Whatever the case, he has been lauded across Asia as one of the world’s chief “virus busters”, says The Economic Times of India. 

A life of glamour

The Poonawallas – so called because of their base in the city of Pune (known as Poona during the British Raj) – are “a fixture of India’s business aristocracy”, noted the FT in 2014. The family is famous for its stable of racehorses, its stud farm, and one of the country’s most expensive sports-car collections. In 2015 the clan bought a sprawling seaside mansion in Mumbai for $113m in “the most expensive residential property deal in India’s history”. Adar Poonawalla was educated in Britain and enjoys an old-fashioned life of glamour – owning paintings by Picasso, Dali, Rembrandt and Rubens, spending holidays on the French Riviera, attending grand prix and calling the Prince of Wales “a close and very dear friend”. His private office, notes The Times, is “a disused Airbus A320”, which he has lavishly refurbished, complete with boardroom and bedroom. 

The family’s journey into vaccines happened almost by chance, says Business Insider. Although hailing from a family of wealthy landowners, Cyrus Poonawalla inherited just 40 acres and knew he had to go into business. It was “a chance meeting with a veterinarian” who worked at his stud farm that triggered an idea to produce vaccines. The timing was propitious, says The Times. When he set up the Serum Institute in 1966, “lots of new vaccines were coming on stream”, but most were imported and far too pricey for most of the country’s population – so the business took off rapidly. It got another boost when Adar Poonawalla joined in 2001 and started developing an international market – cutting the price of vaccines by producing them in huge quantities and focusing on developing countries that the pharma giants ignored.  

The future for the dynasty looks bright. Once “a niche industry”, vaccine manufacturing has found a new status due to Covid-19 and the growing threat of future global pandemics. The modern world, says Poonawalla, is “a melting pot…just waiting to churn out more of these kinds of terrible viruses”. He thinks we were “lucky” with Covid-19. “Can you imagine if ebola were as infectious as coronavirus?” 

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