From his baronial boardroom in Pune, Adar Poonawalla can look out upon the perfectly manicured turf of India’s biggest stud farm. Over the years, the family’s racehorses have won the Indian Derby 10 times. These days, however, the thoroughbreds gambolling across the paddock beneath his window may be the last thing on his mind.
As the world gears up for a race to vaccinate billions of people against Covid-19, the 40-year-old scion of India’s Poonawalla pharmaceuticals dynasty has emerged as a key player. As chief executive of Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, Poonawalla’s factory 70 miles outside Mumbai has been running at full tilt, scrambling to produce 50m doses per month of the AstraZeneca/University of Oxford vaccine which it is hoped will help bring the killer virus under control.
Signs of the pressures facing the company drew into focus on Thursday when a fire broke out at the site in a building that was under construction, reportedly causing five deaths. “We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed,” Poonawalla said in a tweet.
Although the cause of the blaze remains uncertain and production was unaffected, the tragedy has fuelled the growing impression that SII is at the centre of an unfolding global drama.
Even before the fire, the strains were evident. Poonawalla says: “Everyone has worked tirelessly for months on end… The real challenge now is rolling it out to all the countries worldwide but also balancing our commitments domestically and understanding what my government [India] wants us to do. It’s a fine balance.”