March 28, 2023

He already vaccinates half the world’s babies. Tackling the pandemic was much harder

2 min read

As Covid-19 wreaked havoc around the world last year, the 39-year-old son of an Indian billionaire was laying the groundwork for a plan he hoped would eventually end the pandemic.

Adar Poonawalla — the CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker — pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into his Indian manufacturing facility and committed to make millions of doses of a then-unproven coronavirus vaccine. That vaccine, created by Oxford University and AstraZeneca (AZN), was still in clinical trials at the time. Nobody was sure how long a vaccine would take to develop, let alone whether it would even work.

“It was a calculated risk,” Poonawalla told CNN Business. “But I didn’t see the choice at that time, to be honest. I just felt I’d regret not committing one way or another.” To make his plan work, Poonawalla first had to raise nearly $1 billion. And the lives of hundreds of millions of the planet’s most vulnerable people were at stake, since SII had pledged to provide poorer countries with jabs. If the gamble paid off, Poonawalla would save countless lives and be hailed as a hero during a period of historic turmoil. His fabulously rich family also would stand to grow even more wealthy by profiting from a significant deal.

As the world gave its money — and trust — to Poonawalla, things seemed to be going according to plan. The AstraZeneca vaccine received approval from UK regulators in December 2020, and Poonawalla became a household name in India. But soon it became evident how badly Poonawalla had miscalculated the challenges that come with distributing millions of vaccines in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

His company’s ability to inoculate even his own countrymen was thrown into doubt earlier this year as a devastating wave of coronavirus hit India. He’s also failed to keep up with his commitment to deliver shots to other nations — the consequences of which have dented his reputation and shed light on the perils of such heavy reliance on one manufacturer.