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Serum Institute chief says he’s left India, planning to start COVID vaccine production abroad

Serum Institute of India chief Adar Poonawalla has said that he flew to London late last week before the United Kingdom banned travellers from India because he was being threatened. “I’m staying here for an extended time because I don’t want to go back to that situation,” he said in an interview with The Times that was published on Saturday.

Poonawalla is chief executive officer of the Serum Institute, which is the local maker of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca.

“Everything falls on my shoulders but I can’t do it alone,” he said about the alleged threats. “I don’t want to be in a situation where you are just trying to do your job, and just because you can’t supply the needs of X, Y or Z you really don’t want to guess what they are going to do.”

“The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented,” Poonawalla said. “It’s overwhelming. Everyone feels they should get the vaccine. They can’t understand why anyone else should get it before them.”

The Serum Institute chief said phone calls for the Covishield vaccine was the “worst thing”. While the conversation begins cordially, Poonawalla said, it goes in a “very different direction” when he explains why he cannot possibly meet the vaccine demands, according to The Times.

“They are saying if you don’t give us the vaccine it’s not going to be good,” he added. “It’s not foul language. It’s the tone. It’s the implication of what they might do if I don’t comply. It’s taking control. It’s coming over and basically surrounding the place [Serum Institute campus in Pune] and not letting us do anything unless we give in to their demands.”

The Centre has said that Poonawalla will be given Y category security cover across India. The Ministry of Home Affairs had issued orders after conducting a detailed threat assessment.

Poonawalla also added, “There’s going to be an announcement in the next few days.” He said that the Serum Institute is hoping to increase production capacity of its Covishield vaccine from 2.5 billion to 3 billion doses a year within six months.

Poonawalla has said he was planning to start production in other countries amid struggles to meet supply commitments.

Several states in India have postponed the rollout of the third phase of inoculation for those between 18 to 45 years as they have run out of vaccines, exacerbating a second wave of the pandemic.

The 40-year-old told The Times that he cannot comment about the Narendra Modi government’s decision to allow Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar and conduct Assembly elections amid the surge in infections. “If I give you the right answer, or any answer, my head would be chopped off,” Poonawalla said. “I can’t comment on the elections or Kumbh Mela. It’s too sensitive…I don’t think even God could have forecast it was going to get this bad.”

India has reported more than 3 lakh coronavirus cases for the last nine days. On Saturday, it set another global record by reporting more than 4 lakh new infections. The country now has 1,91,64,969 total cases since the pandemic first broke out in January 2020. Scroll