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Indian billionaires bet big on head start in coronavirus vaccine race

Serum Institute researchers work to manufacture a possible COVID-19 vaccine, which is still in clinical trials, last month.
Serum Institute researchers work to manufacture a possible COVID-19 vaccine, which is still in clinical trials, last month. Atul Loke/The New York Times

PUNE, India — In early May, an extremely well-sealed steel box arrived at the cold room of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker.

Inside, packed in dry ice, sat a tiny 1-milliliter vial from Oxford, England, containing the cellular material for one of the world’s most promising coronavirus vaccines.

Scientists in white lab coats brought the vial to Building 14, carefully poured the contents into a flask, added a medium of vitamins and sugar, and began growing billions of cells. Thus began one of the biggest gambles yet in the quest to find the vaccine that will bring the world’s COVID-19 nightmare to an end.

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The Serum Institute, which is exclusively controlled by a small and fabulously rich Indian family and started out years ago as a horse farm, is doing what a few other companies in the race for a vaccine are doing: mass-producing hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine candidate that is still in trials and might not even work.

If it does, Adar Poonawalla, Serum’s chief executive and the only child of the company’s founder, will become one of the most tugged-at men in the world. He will have on hand what everyone wants, possibly in greater quantities before anyone else.

His company, which has teamed up with the Oxford scientists developing the vaccine, was one of the first to boldly announce, in April, that it was going to mass-produce a vaccine before clinical trials even ended. Now, Poonawalla’s fastest vaccine assembly lines are being readied to crank out 500 doses each minute, and his phone rings endlessly.

National health ministers, prime ministers, and other heads of state (he wouldn’t say who) and friends he hasn’t heard from in years have been calling him, he said, begging for the first batches.

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“I’ve had to explain to them that, ‘Look, I can’t just give it to you like this,’” he said.

With the coronavirus pandemic turning the world upside down and all hopes pinned on a vaccine, the Serum Institute finds itself in the middle of an extremely competitive and murky endeavor. To get the vaccine out as soon as possible, vaccine developers say they need Serum’s mammoth assembly lines — each year, it churns out 1.5 billion doses of other vaccines, mostly for poor countries, more than any other company.

Half of the world’s children have been vaccinated with Serum’s products. Scale is its specialty. Just the other day, Poonawalla received a shipment of 600 million glass vials.

But right now it’s not entirely clear how much of the coronavirus vaccine that Serum will mass-produce will be kept by India or who will fund its production, leaving the Poonawallas to navigate a torrent of cross-pressures — political, financial, external, and domestic.

India has been walloped by the coronavirus, and with 1.3 billion people, it needs vaccine doses as much as anywhere. It’s also led by a highly nationalistic prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose government has already blocked exports of drugs that were believed to help treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Poonawalla, 39, says that he will split the hundreds of millions of vaccine doses he produces 50-50 between India and the rest of the world, with a focus on poorer countries, and that Modi’s government has not objected to this.

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But he added, “Look, they may still invoke some kind of emergency if they deem fit or if they want to.”

The Oxford-designed vaccine is just one of several promising contenders that will soon be mass-produced, in different factories around the world, before they are proven to work. Vaccines take time not just to perfect but to manufacture. Live cultures need weeks to grow inside bioreactors, for instance, and each vial needs to be carefully cleaned, filled, stoppered, sealed, and packaged.

The idea is to conduct these two processes simultaneously and start production now, while the vaccines are still in trials, so that as soon as the trials are finished — at best within the next six months, though no one really knows — vaccine doses will be on hand.

US and European governments have committed billions of dollars to this effort, cutting deals with pharmaceutical giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Sanofi, and AstraZeneca to speed up development and production of vaccine candidates in exchange for hundreds of millions of doses.

AstraZeneca is the lead partner with the Oxford scientists, and it has signed government contracts worth more than $1 billion to manufacture the vaccine for Europe, the United States, and other markets. But it has allowed the Serum Institute to produce it as well. The difference, Poonawalla said, is that his company is shouldering the cost of production on its own.

But Serum is distinct from all other major vaccine producers in an important way. Like many highly successful Indian businesses, it is family run. It can make decisions quickly and take big risks, like the one it’s about to, which could cost the family hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Poonawalla said he was “70 to 80 percent” sure the Oxford vaccine would work.

Unbeholden to shareholders, the Serum Institute is steered by only two men: Poonawalla and his father, Cyrus, a horse breeder turned billionaire.

More than 50 years ago, the Serum Institute began as a shed on the family’s thoroughbred horse farm. The elder Poonawalla realized that instead of donating horses to a vaccine laboratory that needed horse serum — one way of producing vaccines is to inject horses with small amounts of toxins and then extract their antibody-rich blood serum — he could process the serum and make the vaccines himself.

He started with tetanus in 1967. Then snake bite antidotes. Then shots for tuberculosis, hepatitis, polio, and the flu. From his stud farm in the fertile town of Pune, Cyrus Poonawalla built a vaccine empire, and a staggering fortune.

Capitalizing on India’s combination of cheap labor and advanced technology, the Serum Institute won contracts from UNICEF, the Pan American Health Organization, and scores of countries, many of them poor, to supply low-cost vaccines. The Poonawallas have now entered the pantheon of India’s richest families, worth more than $5 billion.