At the India Global Forum last week, Adar Poonawala, CEO of Serum Institute of India, spoke on a range of issues, from the shortage of vaccines, to how he had to face a stressful time when India banned the exports of Covid-19 vaccines, and suggested bold and out-of-the-box ideas to deal with future pandemics.
Adar Poonawala, CEO of Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine producer in the world, strongly refuted the suggestion that global vaccine distribution has become a game of haves versus the have nots.
“Things have not gone that badly wrong. To put things in perspective, you need billions of doses of vaccines. As we all know, the combined capacity of all the global manufacturers of vaccines is nowhere near what’s required to meet the current demand. Of course, that’s being ramped up. Some nations that can afford it have got ahead of others but that’s where Covax plays a role. We’ve exported 60 million doses from India between January and the end of February, which is, perhaps, more than any other country,” he said at the India Global Forum last week.
Attending the annual meeting of some of the world’s leading decision makers and intellectuals, he added: “Every regime is responsible for their own population first. Eventually, you’ll see vaccines from countries like the US, India and others going to other parts of the world…. so that there’s equitable distribution.”
Addressing the issue of vaccine shortages, Poonawala asserted quite strongly that no one is to blame as it takes time to develop and deliver vaccines.
Recounting the tough times, he faced when he had to stop exporting Covid-19 vaccines for which his company had taken advances, he explained that when the second wave hit India, SII (and, indeed, the other manufacturer Bharat N=Biotech) had to focus all their firepower for the Indian population.
“It was a stressful time. We had commitments to Astra Zeneca and Covax and taken advances. These had to be returned. But in the end, everyone understood,” he said, adding: “India will resume exporting vaccines in a few months’ time, once the situation stabilises in the country.”
Sharing statistics to buttress his confidence on this count, he informed that in January, SII was producing 50 million doses a month; in March, it had ramped this up to 70 million doses. Now, in June, the company is rolling out 90 million and hopes to add another 10 per cent to that output in August.
“Today, we’re vaccinating between four and five million beneficiaries a day. That’s the highest anywhere in the world. We have administered 330-340 million doses (that figure is now at more than 350 million) to Indians. There’s a ramp up in vaccinations in other parts of the world as well. By the end of the year, you should see a large part of the Indian population vaccinated,” he said.
On the issue of loosening IP on vaccines, which is being pushed by India and South Africa, Poonawala felt waiving of IP will not solve the problem and mitigate the immediate shortage of vaccines. “It’s good strategy for the long term and can help the world in future pandemics. Till you have certain legal agreements, it takes time to import viral strains, products and raw materials and equipment. It could be of help in future pandemics but it probably wouldn’t be fair to all the innovators to have a blanket waiver without any commercial terms.”
Elaborating further, the CEO of SII, which till recently was best known as the supplier of vaccines for two-thirds of the world’s children, and which now produces 90 per cent of India’s Covid-19 vaccines, added: “It’s not just about the patent. It’s about the innovator showing and transferring the process to a manufacturer. That could take anywhere between one-and-a-half and two years. It’s going to be challenging and time consuming.”
Discussing the preparedness of the world to deal with a future pandemic, Poonawala said it’s important to set standards that are acceptable all over the world… “by the WHO, by the USFDA, in the UK, China, India and elsewhere. This will save a lot of time both today and in future pandemics”.
This, he explained, will remove the regulatory bottlenecks that exist to make all kinds of vaccines available to those who need it. “If you’re WHO-approved, even though you’re not selling a product in a different region, it should be acceptable for people who have been vaccinated with a WHO pre-qualified dose. These things need to be in place if we’re talking of not only the free movement of vaccines but also of people. It’s like a visa. What good is it if there’s not reciprocity between countries?”
His second suggestion for dealing with future pandemics was stockpile empty capacities – which he explained, would entail entering into long-term contracts, of 10-15 years, with certain regions or countries that don’t have the ability to manufacture vaccines and giving them priority supplies at a fixed price.
“Imagine you have a 15-year reservation fee for idle capacity for a manufacturer who can supply to an entire region at the push of a button with multiple different products and technologies that can be put in there. This is what I’m proposing. This is where the world can come together and have these 4-5 massive centres of manufacturing, probably in the country that are already doing it, to be able to service the world going forward. That will be one way of addressing future pandemics,” he suggested.