Launch of the vaccine will take two months after licensing, says Poonawalla of the Serum Institute

After the licensing, it will still be two months before the large-volume launch, says Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.

The Serum Institute has taken on a vital role as the largest company licensed to manufacture the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from the University of Oxford. It is increasing its production capacity by the end of 2021 to more than 2.5 billion doses a year to cope with future disease outbreaks, Poonawalla said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

So far, the company has manufactured 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for the University of Oxford. He plans to do up to 100 million doses each month, starting next year, Poonawalla said.

The company also has an agreement with the US-based Novavax for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine, but has not yet started manufacturing it. India has indicated that it wants 300 million doses by July. After that, the Serum Institute will be distributing vaccines to the world.

The Poonawalla company now has an annual capacity of 1.5 billion doses. That’s more than the 1 billion doses that China, home to the world’s largest number of vaccine makers, says it makes in one year.

The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call for governments to invest more in health care, he added.

Looking beyond the pandemic, he said he anticipates that more diseases will pass from animal hosts to humans, driving a large demand for vaccines, so the additional capacity is likely to be useful in the coming decades.

I think (demand) will continue to grow even more exponentially, compared to the last five to ten years, Poonawalla said Wednesday.

Forest loss and human forays into wild habitats create more opportunities for such pathogens to make the leap. That was true for COVID-19 and other diseases like SARS, MERS, and HIV-AIDS.

Existing research indicates that India, with its high population density and biodiverse forests, is among the most likely locations for the emergence of these new diseases.

For now, the Serum Institute is focusing on the coronavirus. It has committed to supplying the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to developing countries through COVAX, an ambitious global initiative to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world.

Most of the vaccines to be made next year have been booked by wealthier countries, so the Serum Institute’s role will be critical, said Anna Marriott, Oxfam UK’s health policy adviser. Where else could the vaccine supply come from? she asked.

In April, before it was known if any vaccine could work against the coronavirus, Serum bet on several candidate vaccines and invested in developing their capacity.

Like many Indian companies, it is a family business, founded in 1966 by Poonawalla’s father and its current president, Cyrus Poonawalla, so he had scope to take that kind of risk.

The young Poonawalla said the company faced a moral dilemma about waiting to be sure a vaccine could be successful and risk millions of lives.

But the pandemic has highlighted the power of vaccines, as they are generally affordable and can help prevent costly hospitalizations, he said. It is a good and cheap solution for health care.

Countries spend very little on health care infrastructure, mistakenly viewing it as less important to the economy and political optics than investing in defense or space programs that highlight its growing power. That’s particularly true, Poonawalla said, of developing countries like India, whether it’s hospitals, drug discovery (or) vaccines.

The pandemic should lead to more support for research and health systems, at least I hope, he added.