Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla on Saturday spoke out about the pressures he was under over the production of COVID-19 vaccines to meet the ever-increasing demand in India as the country battles through a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. In his first comments since he was provided with Y' category security by the Indian government earlier this week, Poonawalla told The Times' in an interview about receiving aggressive calls from some of the most powerful people in India, demanding supplies of Covishield â€” the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that the Serum Institute is producing in India.
That pressure is largely behind his decision to fly into London to be with his wife and children, the 40-year-old entrepreneur said. "I'm staying here (London) for an extended time because I don't want to go back to that situation. Everything falls on my shoulders but I can't do it alone...I don't want to be in a situation where you are just trying to do your job, and just because you can't supply the needs of X, Y or Z you really don't want to guess what they are going to do," Poonawalla told the newspaper.
According to Indian government officials, the protection to Poonawalla has been given in view of "potential threats" to him. Armed commandos of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) will be with him every time he travels to any part of the country, they said and added that the 'Y' security cover will entail a posse of about 4-5 armed commandos.
In the interview, Poonawalla had alleged that he had been receiving threats in India and that he and his family had left the country for London after unprecedented "pressure and aggression" over the demand of COVID-19 vaccines.
The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented. It's overwhelming. Everyone feels they should get the vaccine. They can't understand why anyone else should get it before them, Poonawalla said.
The businessman indicated in the interview that his move to London is also linked to business plans to expand vaccine manufacturing to countries outside India, which may include the likes of the UK.
There's going to be an announcement in the next few days, he said, when asked about Britain as one of the production bases outside India.
In a late night tweet on Saturday, he said the production of Covishield -- the Oxford/AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine that is being produced by Serum Institute in India -- was in full swing at SII's facility in Pune. "Pleased to state that COVISHIELD's production is in full swing in Pune. I look forward to reviewing operations upon my return in a few days," Poonawalla said. He, however, did not give a timeline for his return to India.
According to The Times, by the time the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was approved in January this year, the Serum Institute of India (SII) had increased its annual production capacity from 1.5 to 2.5 billion doses at a cost of USD 800 million, and stockpiled 50 million doses of Covishield.
The company began exporting to 68 countries, including Britain, as India seemed to have been over the worse, until the situation worsened in recent weeks. We're really gasping for all the help we can get, Poonawalla said in the Times' interview. I don't think even God could have forecast it was going to get this bad, he said.
In the interview, when asked about the impact of the 'Kumbh Mela' and the Assembly elections on the second wave in India, Poonawalla had said his "head would be chopped off" if he answered on such a "sensitive" matter.
On the charge of profiteering as the cost of Covishield was recently hiked, he termed it as totally incorrect and added that Covishield will still be the most affordable vaccine on the planet even at a higher price. We have done the best we can without cutting corners or doing anything wrong or profiteering. I'll wait for history to judge, he said.
I've always had this sense of responsibility to India and the world because of the vaccines we were making, but never have we made a vaccine so needed in terms of saving lives, he added.
The Serum Institute on April 21 had announced a price of Rs 600 per dose for private hospitals and at Rs 400 for state governments and for any new contract by the central government.
The announcement followed widespread criticism of the company's pricing policy as it has sold the initial doses of Covishield to the central government at Rs 150 per dose. Many states objected to the different prices for the vaccines.
Subsequently, SII on Wednesday announced a cut in price of the jab it plans to sell to states to Rs 300 per dose.
India's new coronavirus cases rose by 3,92,488, while deaths from the infection jumped by 3,689 over the past 24 hours, according to health ministry data released on Sunday. Total case load now stands at 1.95 crore with 2,15,542 deaths.
His comments triggered a range of comments, with some expressing disappointment at his move. Some even criticised him for stating in the interview that SII was planning to begin production outside India.
India rolled out the third phase of its COVID-19 vaccination drive for those in the age group of 18-45 years on Saturday though the inoculation process failed to take off in some states due to shortage of vaccines.