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SII plans pandemic facility to stockpile vax for the world

The drive through the sprawling 100-acre campus of Serum Institute of India (SII) at Manjari on the outskirts of Pune is striking as you see pride in the eyes of people who’ve contributed to the making of Covid vaccine some way or the other. The world’s largest vaccine maker, which supplied about 80 per cent of the doses used in India’s Covid vaccination programme, is now working on the next plan.

Serum Institute is building a plug-and-play vaccine making facility for the next pandemic at Manjari. SII wants the new facility to be available to any country that may need an urgent supply of vaccine doses in the event of an outbreak.

Prior to the pandemic, the company had a capacity to make 1.5 billion annual doses. It was making about 1.2 billion doses and then scaled up in the last two years.

Adar Poonawalla, CEO and brain behind the new age SII, says in an interaction with Business Standard that by the end of 2021, the company was making 250 million doses a month. It is now planning a 4-billion annual doses capacity. Of this, around 2 billion annual doses would come from the new pandemic facility.

A visibly upbeat Poonawalla, sitting in his plush office in Manjri with two Rolls Royce and an aircraft parked outside, says that he has offered the 300,000 sq ft pandemic facility to all world leaders and countries in case they need to stockpile vaccines or require any product.

“It is designed as a pandemic facility – it can handle all the different technologies. That’s where our additional 2 billion annual doses are coming from. The first product from this facility will be the HPV vaccine,” Poonawalla says. SII will make the HPV vaccine now in an older site, and roll it out from the pandemic facility next year.

What drives Poonawalla, 41, to continue building huge capacities? What happened during the second wave in India should never ever happen again, he believes. Every country in the world was vying for vaccines, and was looking at India for supplies, but SII had to stop exports to cater to local demand, he recalls.

“I decided that I don’t want to be in that situation again, I don’t want to make a choice between an African country or a South American country and India. There should be enough for everybody. That’s why we have put in thousands of crores of investments in recent times to take care of it,” Poonawalla says. Currently, only 50 per cent or less of his current capacity is being utilized. “Outbreaks and endemic type diseases will keep emerging, and the world will always need someone to manufacture it at a low cost,” Poonawalla says.

SII’s advantage is that it is privately held. “We don’t need only focus on profits. We can break even in some products and supply the other products…it does not really matter to us,” he explains.

SII has invested close to Rs 10,000 crore in the last five years. During the pandemic, the revenues have soared four to five times from the usual run rate, giving the company cash accruals to invest.

At the moment, about 200 million doses of Covishield are lying in the cold storage at Manjri. About 20-30 million doses will start to expire starting August.

At a packaging plant, a group of 20-odd employees are sorting Covishield doses (that are set to expire in November). The new booster dose drive has revived some demand and SII may end up salvaging about 50-100 million doses as a result.

But SII is no longer making any Covishiled. Rather, its 6000-litre disposable bioreactors (touted to be the only functional ones in the world) are busy producing the bulk of Covovax, the Novavax vaccine. Poonawalla says the company will start making the Omicron variant of Novavax vaccine soon and is working with the US firm to develop a flu-shot and Covid-19 vaccine combination.

SII has big dreams. As one of its production heads said, “When the pandemic hit, we were making 1.5 billion doses a year and we thought that was enough. And now we are talking of 4 billion doses a year….nothing is impossible.” Business Standard

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