Following the European Union’s pressure on AstraZeneca whose Covid-19 vaccine Covishield is manufactured by India-based Serum Institute of India (SII), Adar Poonawalla, head of the manufacturing facility, has complained of threats from politicians and “powerful men” demanding quick delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine that his firm has been producing.
In an interview to a London newspaper, Poonawalla complained of being “vilified and blamed”, and hinted at starting a new vaccine production unit in the United Kingdom.
“‘Threats’ is an understatement” to describe what he faced from people demanding “instant supplies” of the vaccine, Poonawalla said in an interview. He said he had received calls from “some of the most powerful men in India”, including “chief ministers…, heads of business conglomerates and others”.
“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 in the interview.
“They are saying if you don’t give us the vaccine it’s not going to be good… It’s not foul language. It’s the tone. It’s the implication of what they might do if I don’t comply. It’s taking control. It’s coming over and basically surrounding the place and not letting us do anything unless we give in to their demands,” Poonawalla said.
Not so long ago, Adar Poonawalla was complaining of US restrictions on exports of constituents of his vaccine. He also said his capacity for high production was strained.
In the meantime, scientists showered high praise on the wholly Indian product Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), which they said worked well even against the double mutant variant of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the European Commission launched legal proceedings against the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca, alleging that it did not respect its contract or have a “reliable” plan to ensure timely deliveries of vaccine doses.
Now, Poonawalla has been in London with his family for the last few days. Media reports said he “flew to London to join his wife and two children hours before Britain banned travellers from India eight days ago”.
Poonawalla said that he was “staying here (in the UK) an extended time because I don’t want to go back to that situation” whereas Europe is the hotbed of the ‘vaccine war’ at the moment.
“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 said in the interview.
Late on 1 May, the SII CEO posted on Twitter: “Had an excellent meeting with all our partners & stakeholders in the UK Meanwhile, 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.”
Asked who must carry the blame for the situation India finds itself in, Poonawalla said: “If I give you the right answer, or any answer, my head would be chopped off… I can’t comment on the elections or Kumbh Mela. It’s too sensitive… I don’t think even God could have forecast it was going to get this bad.”
Cyrus Poonawalla, the father of the SII CEO and chairman of the Poonawalla Group, said, “Adar goes to various places as and when required due to work, and this time has taken his family with him.”
Poonawalla faces formidable competition
SII is producing the Covid-19 vaccine Covishield developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. The SII has supplied 90% of the vaccine doses that have been given to Indian nationals so far. In the last few weeks, however, vaccines have been in short supply in the country, amidst a swelling demand, while scientists are vouching for the efficacy of the wholly India-made Covaxin. But the competition would become stiffer when India begins getting vaccines now available in the US and European countries.
A pharmaceutical industry watcher told Sirf News he believes Poonawalla is making a “hoax call” either to draw attention to “his value, wriggle out of the situation of scarcity or to influence the government”.
“His value will reduce further when other vaccines that are being administered in the US, Russia and other European countries arrive in India,” the source said. Americans are largely receiving doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, followed by that made by Moderna. Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen also is in the market. Russia’s product is Sputnik.
As of January 2021, authorised vaccines of the adenovirus vector type are the Oxford–AstraZeneca’s Covishield, the Sputnik V, Convidecia and the Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.
As of January 2021, authorised vaccines of the inactivated virus type are the Chinese CoronaVac, BBIBP-CorV and WIBP-CorV, the Indian Covaxin and the Russian CoviVac. Vaccines in clinical trials include Valneva.
As of April 2021, the two authorised subunit vaccines are the peptide vaccine EpiVacCorona and RBD-Dimer.
Vaccines with pending authorisations include the Novavax, SOBERANA 02 (a conjugate vaccine) and the Sanofi–GSK vaccine. The V451 vaccine was previously in clinical trials, which were terminated because it was found that the vaccine may potentially cause incorrect results for subsequent HIV testing.