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Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla hints at starting vaccine production outside India, says he temporarily moved to UK due to threats from the powerful

In an interview with The Times, Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla revealed the threats and intimidation he had to face in India from influential people who wanted his company made vaccines

Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of the Serum Institute of India, which manufactures the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine known as Covishield in India, has hinted that he is planning to start vaccine production in other countries as it struggles to meet supply commitments. Poonawalla made the revelation in an interview with The Times.

When asked if Poonawalla is looking at Britain as one of the destinations for augmenting his vaccine production, he responded: “There’s going to be an announcement in the next few days.”

However, it is widely believed that Britain could be one of the countries where Serum Institute of India could start its vaccine production outside India. Lord Udny-Lister, who was until recently one of the top aides of British PM Boris Johnson, visited the Serum Institute of India in March. Johnson was also scheduled to visit the institute on his cancelled trip to India this week.

Poonawalla last week said that he would be able to increase the monthly vaccine production capacity to 100 million doses by July this year, which is a month late than his earlier timeline of May-end. This could throw a curveball into India’s vaccination drive as it ushers in the phase 4 inoculation where people above 18 years of age can get vaccinated.

He hoped to increase the Serum Institute’s production capacity from 2.5 billion to 3 billion doses a year within six months, the Times reported.

Poonawalla reveals threats he received from powerful people who demanded him urgent supplies of Covishield

Poonawalla flew to London to join his wife and two children hours before Britain banned travellers from India eight days ago. Besides business, the reason that prompted Poonawalla to leave India was the incessant and menacing threats he had to endure from those who pressurise and intimidate him to provide them with vaccines.

He says he has been receiving calls from the most powerful men in India, chief ministers of Indian states, heads of business conglomerates and other influential people who are demanding him of providing them with vaccines even as his organisation is working round the clock to fulfil the vaccine demand.

“Threats is an understatement. The level of expectations 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 reportedly said to The Times.

Poonawalla explained the calls he receives normally start with exchanging pleasantries before it drifts in a “very different direction”. “They are saying if you don’t give us the vaccine, it’s not going to be good…It’s not the foul language, it’s the tone. It’s the implication of what they might do if I don’t comply. It’s taking control,” he said.

He further added, “I’m staying here (Britain) extended times because I don’t want to go back to that situation. Everything falls on my shoulders but I can’t do it alone…I don’t want to be in a situation where you are trying to do your job, and just because you can’t supply the needs of X, Y and Z you really don’t want to guess what they are going to do.”

Adar Poonawalla given Y category security cover

Due to the threats the SII CEO is receiving, the union home ministry on Wednesday had announced that he will be provided with Y category security cover. The ‘Y’ category security comprises 11 personnel, including one or two commandoes and police personnel.

The centre’s decision had come after Director, Government and Regulatory Affairs, at the Serum Institute, Prakash Kumar Singh wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah on April 16 requesting security for Poonawalla. In the letter, Singh had stated that Poonawalla has been getting threats from various groups regarding the COVID-19 vaccine supplies.

Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, attack Adar Poonawalla and accuse him of “profiteering” from the pandemic

It is pertinent to note that Congress leaders, spurred by their former president Rahul Gandhi, have been relentlessly attacking Adar Poonawalla, for a host of reasons—for procuring the supply of vaccines for their respective states to the cost of the vaccine. A high-voltage campaign was run against Serum Institute of India after it announced prices for its vaccine for the state governments and private hospitals.

SII had announced Rs 400 per dose for the state governments and Rs 600 for private hospitals. However, many state governments, mostly Congress-ruled states and senior Congress leaders started vilifying Adar Poonawalla and the Serum Institute of India, painting them as money-grubbers who were profiteering from a pandemic.

Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was amongst the politicians who led the attack against the Serum Institute of India and its CEO Adar Poonawalla. He described Adar as PM Modi’s friend. In a tweet attaching SII’s vaccine rates for the state governments and private hospitals announced by the company, he implied that the Centre is supporting a few companies to ‘earn profits’.

Mr Gandhi’s attack against Adar was in line with his unwarranted vilification of Reliance and Adani Group, accusing them of profiteering because of being supposedly close to PM Modi. It is noteworthy to mention that Reliance and Adani group are at the forefront of India’s fight against the resurgent wave of the coronavirus outbreak, with Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited being the largest producer of medicinal oxygen in the country. It has so far donated 15,000 MT of oxygen to about 15 lakh patients in the country.

Nevertheless, Rahul’s tendency to attack businessmen in India continues unabated. Following the outrage, the Serum Institute of India reduced its vaccines price from Rs 400 per dose, which was already among the lowest in the world, to Rs 300 per dose.

Clearing the accusation of “profiteering” that was levelled against the SII, Poonawalla told The Times that the allegations were “totally incorrect”. He says the centre was able to buy the vaccine at Rs 150 per dose because it was buying in advance. He says the company will make money from the higher prices charged to state governments and private hospitals but insists Covishield will still be the “most affordable vaccine in the world”.

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