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How an Indian company can be the door of the world to a vaccine against COVID-19

PUNE (Reuters) – If the world gets access to the COVID-19 vaccine, there is a good chance it will pass through the doors of the Serum Institute in India.

PHOTO: Men ride a motorcycle past a truck delivery to the Indian Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine maker working on a coronavirus vaccine (COVID-19) in Pune, India, May 18, 2020 / Yuan Roche

The serum institute, the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume, is working on several candidates for the new coronavirus – including potentially mass-producing AstraZeneca / Oxford University, which has collected global titles – as well as developing its own.

The effort is partly being mastered by Umesh Shaligram, head of research and development. His employer is a private company, but every day, just before midnight, he receives a message from the government WhatsApp asking for updates and all the new obstacles he faces.

The message is usually from K. VijayRaghavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s best scientific adviser – an indication of the critical and even strategically important nature of the vaccine development race that the whole world is waiting for.

Shaligram responds quickly with a progress report and details all bottlenecks.

“Any delay, just tell them,” Shaligram said, adding that the government is doing everything possible to speed up permits and resolve import delays and other problems.

“We’ve started to see approvals coming in days, even on Sunday nights, for trials and things like that,” he said, noting that some of these processes usually take four to six months.

While most of the focus on vaccines usually goes to the pharmaceutical developer, India is quietly playing a key role in the production of 60% -70% of all vaccines sold worldwide, with the Serum Institute playing a leading role, the CEO said. of the company Adar Poonawalla.

At the company’s disposal, a 150-acre campus in the western Indian city of Pune, Shaligram and his team are running smoothly. Dozens of buses transport hundreds of workers every day to the sites, which are buzzing with activity, even the city around it remains largely locked.

Progress is coming as the number of COVID-19 cases, both globally and globally, continues to rise, and world leaders see vaccines as the only real way to restart stagnant economies, although so far none has not been shown to be effective against coronavirus.

Poonawalla, whose family owns the vaccine manufacturer, said scientists, drug manufacturers and manufacturers are working together on an incomparable scale to boost development and availability.

“We are all in a race to fight the disease. There is no single leadership here,” he told Reuters as he sat in his office next to his family’s 74-year-old family farm.


The serum, founded in 1966 by Adar’s father Cyrus Poonavala, has partnered with the American biotechnology company Codagenix, its American competitor Novavax (NVAX.O) and the Austrian Themis potentially to produce three COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are still under development.

Another candidate in the works is the experimental vaccine, developed by a team from Oxford University and already licensed to the drug manufacturer AstraZeneca (AZN.L), with whom Serum is in talks to mass-produce the vaccine, which is now in a clinical trial.

The United States has provided nearly a third of the first 1 billion doses planned for the potential vaccine, originally known as ChAdOx1 and now AZD1222, at a cost of up to $ 1.2 billion.

Poonawalla aims to initially produce 4-5 million doses per month, starting in June and then gradually increasing to 350-400 million doses per year.

“We hope to build up a stockpile of several million doses to give to our country and other high-risk areas around the world, coming in October-November, when the trials must be completed,” the 39-year-old said. of Reuters rare access for a tour of its facilities.

He added that he was told by the development team that the trials had an 80% chance of success, given that the vaccine was based on a proven platform.

Based on currently available information, Poonawalla also said that she expects AZD1222 to be a single-dose vaccine and not to require a booster dose.

He sees AZD1222 with a potential price of around Rs 1,000 ($ 13) per dose in India, but expects it to be purchased and distributed by governments free of charge.

The serum is also working to develop its own vaccine options to tackle the disease, Poonawalla said.


Even if the vaccine succeeds, treatment will be needed to fight COVID-19, Poonawalla said, noting that some people do not get the desired immune response, even if they are vaccinated.

“You may get mild symptoms, you may get severe symptoms. It depends on your system, but there is a chance, “he added. “Not all vaccines are completely effective.”

The serum institute produces more than 1.5 billion doses of vaccine each year for everything from polio to measles.

Poonawalla says this has given the company an advantage in securing supplies of vials and high-quality chemicals needed to make the vaccine in bulk once all approvals have been introduced.

“We partner with many of our suppliers to have pre-stocked inventories of glass vials and glass tubes for one to two years, so fortunately this will not be a problem for us.”

However, any successful vaccine will initially have a shortage, he stressed.

India registered more than 6,000 new cases of coronavirus on Friday, bringing the total to more than 118,000 cases with more than 3,500 deaths, even as it gradually began to ease its nearly two-month long-term blockade across the country.

There are more than 5 million infections and more than 330,000 deaths worldwide.

The Indian government is ready to cover the cost of testing each vaccine in the country, Poonawalla said, adding that the government has also expressed interest in pre-ordering a potential vaccine.

“We reached and they were very positive,” he added. “But we said wait … because we don’t want to take government money until we’re very confident we can deliver it.”


Serum, one of the few companies to increase hiring during the health crisis, is also designing a separate pandemic vaccine facility that can handle 90% of current vaccine applicants, except for COVID-19 alone.

This facility, which will be ready in the next two to three years, could potentially deplete 700-800 million doses a year, according to Poonawalla.

The CEO said he was considering publishing the company a few years ago to fund some major acquisitions, but changed course when the deals fell.

He is now considering a different approach. It is exploring the creation of a holding company that will host pandemic-level technologies, including production, intellectual property and sales rights to all applicants related to COVID-19 serum, and the sale of a minority stake in the venture.

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“This will unlock the value in the underlying excess,” he said.

Poonawalla said he has hired bankers to test the waters of this, but stressed that he would consider selling a stake only to ethical, long-term funds or government funds that do not expect huge returns and want to “change the world”.

“Once I get them on board, I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to charge high prices to make a profit.”

Reporting by Abhirup Roy and Ewan Rocha; Edited by Pravin Char

Our standards:The principles of trust of Thomson Reuters.

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