Serum Institute of India chief Adar Poonawalla and his wife Natasha launch the country's first nasal H1N1 vaccine in 2010. The company is rolling out its Covid vaccine. Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

MUMBAI – For most older Indians, the Poonawalla family is famous for champion race horses at the prestigious Indian Derby in Mumbai. Today, another thoroughbred from the Poonawalla stable is leading India’s critical drive to save lives.

The family-owned Serum Institute of India is at the center of the world’s largest roll-out of Covid vaccines. An estimated 16 million Indians were due to get their first dose on Saturday at more than 3,000 centers around the country.

Serum Institute picked a winner by stocking up millions of doses researched by AstraZeneca and Oxford University before all the required trials were complete, confident of its success with half a century of vaccine experience.

Serum agreed in May to produce a billion doses in a year, according to reports. It could have set them back by few hundred million dollars, but some would say the Poonawallas know about making the right bets.

Serum’s gamble is helping India launch its inoculation program within weeks of countries such as the US and UK. India, with 10.5 million Covid cases, is second behind the United States’ 23.85 million cases.

Still, the number of cases, fatalities and active cases in India has been steadily declining for more than a month. India on Friday reported 189 deaths compared with more than 4,000 in the US.

Of the 16 million vaccines, about 11 million are from Serum Institute and 5.5 million from Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, made along with the Indian Council of Medical Research and Institute of Virology. About 300 million Indians will get the vaccine over the next few months in the first phase of the government program.

Providing a bulk of vaccines for the first phase of the world’s largest roll out of inoculation from Saturday brings double delight to chief executive Adar Poonawalla.

In 2012, he acquired Netherland-based vaccine maker Bilthoven Biologicals within a year of becoming chief executive, and soon after the Czech arm of US-based Nanotherapeutics to increase the capacity to make polio vaccine.

The Institute dates back to 1966, focused on catering to cheap vaccines for India and the Third World, an area not preferred by multinational pharma companies. Serum can produce 1.5 billion vaccines a year.

Their foray into vaccines has an equine link. Poonawallas realized half a century back that instead of selling horses to vaccine laboratory needing horse serum, they could by themselves inject horses with toxins and extract antibody-rich blood serum to make the vaccine.

Medical staff work inside a Covid-19 vaccination center in Mumbai on January 15. Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

Over seven decades they’ve won the Indian Derby 10 times, Indian Classics 70 times and been awarded champion breeders award 15 times by turf authorities of India.

Yet today, the family ranked by Forbes as sixth-richest in India with $11.5 billion net worth is better known for the dozens of vaccines it has supplied to more than 170 countries. Two in every three children across the world would have got at least one of Serum’s vaccines, the company says.

Among the commonly talked about vaccines to prevent diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis and BCG vaccine for tuberculosis, as also H1N1 called Nasovac in 2010.

January 12 was an emotional moment for employees and Adar Poonawalla as vaccine batches shipped out under armed security usually reserved for senior government ministers.

The vaccine boxes will remain under guard round the clock until injected. Authorities are guarding against theft or being replaced by counterfeits, with the real vaccine being sold in illegal markets.

A worker sets up a poster at a vaccination centre in Mumbai on January 15. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

About 300,000 healthcare workers were to get the jabs at 3,006 centers on Saturday. Each center was to inoculate 100 recipients. A recipient will have to be at least 18 years old and shouldn’t be running a fever or any other illness. Pregnant or lactating women have been excluded for now. An inoculation with the same brand will be repeated after 28 days.

Dry runs were conducted on January 3 on a limited scale and countrywide on January 8 involving 170,000 medical personnel who’ll give the vaccinations and 300,000 team members. Saturday’s experience will help ramp up the program rapidly.

Defence, police and other security personnel will come next, to be followed by postmen and other government staff exposed to potential Covid carriers. The public will likely get the vaccine by June or July, after others in order or priority, such as those over 50 and with co-morbidities, government officials say.

Company chairman Cyrus Poonawalla told a TV channel that the priority would be to meet local demand before beginning exports. The volume under production would cover its selling cost to the government, he said, declining to disclose the price.

Serum Institute didn’t respond to questions sent by Asia Times.

Serum Institute will provide 200 million vaccines at $3 per dose to low and middle income countries this year as part of its commitment to Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, or Gavi, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation had provided $300 million risk fund to Gavi. The fund will also support Serum Institute manufacture vaccines for India and low and middle income countries.  

Reports suggest the company will export to Brazil, South Africa, and Bangladesh. Many Third World countries are keen on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made by Serum Institute because of its lower price and ease of storing and transport at refrigerator temperatures.

Exports used to be 85% of SII’s output until the government increased its buying five years back, reducing its exports to 60% of output.