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Indian billionaires are looking ahead to the coronavirus vaccine race

PUNE, India – In early May, a well-sealed steel box arrived in the cold room of the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world.

Inside, packaged in dry ice, there was a small 1 milliliter vial from Oxford, England, containing the cellular material for one of the most promising coronavirus vaccines in the world.

White coat scientists brought the vial to building 14, carefully poured the contents into a flask, added a medium of vitamins and sugar and started to grow billions of cells. Thus began one of the biggest bets still in the search for the vaccine that would eventually lead to the Covid-1

9 nightmare of the world.

The Serum Institute, which is controlled exclusively by a fabulously wealthy small Indian family and started years ago as a horse farm, is doing what few other companies in the race for a vaccine are doing: mass producing hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine candidate who is still in the testing phase and may not even work.

With the coronavirus pandemic turning the world upside down and all hopes pinned on a vaccine, the Serum Institute is in the midst of an extremely competitive and obscure effort. To get the vaccine out as soon as possible, the vaccine developers say they need Serum’s gigantic assembly lines: every year it produces 1.5 billion doses of other vaccines, especially for poor countries, more than any other company.

The idea is to run these two processes at the same time and start production now, while the vaccines are still being tested, so that as soon as the tests are finished – at best within the next six months, even if nobody is he really knows – vaccine doses will be at hand, ready for a desperate world to protect himself.

American and European governments have pledged billions of dollars in this effort, cutting deals with pharmaceutical giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Sanofi and AstraZeneca to accelerate the development and production of selected vaccine candidates in exchange for hundreds of millions of doses.

AstraZeneca is the primary partner with Oxford scientists and has signed government contracts worth over $ 1 billion worth of vaccine production for Europe, the United States and other markets. But it also allowed the Serum Institute to produce it. The difference, said Poonawalla, is that his company bears production costs on its own.

But serum is distinctly distinct from all other major vaccine manufacturers. Like many highly successful Indian companies, it is family owned. It can make decisions quickly and take big risks, such as the one it is about to face, which could cost the family hundreds of millions of dollars.

Poonawalla claimed to be “70 to 80%” confident that the Oxford vaccine would work.

But, he added, “I hope I don’t go too far.”

Not considered to be shareholders, the Serum Institute is led by only two men: Mr. Poonawalla and his father, Cyrus, a horse breeder who has become a billionaire.

More than 50 years ago, the Serum Institute began as a shed in the breeding of family breed horses. Elder Poonawalla realized that instead of donating horses to a vaccine lab that needed horse serum – one way to make vaccines is to inject horses with small amounts of toxins and then extract their antibody-rich blood serum – he could process whey and produce vaccines.

It started with tetanus in 1967. Then the snake bite antidotes. Hence the shots for tuberculosis, hepatitis, poliomyelitis and flu. From his stable in the fertile and pleasantly humid city of Pune, Mr. Poonawalla built an empire of vaccines and a staggering fortune.

Leveraging the Indian combination of low-cost labor and advanced technology, the Serum Institute has been awarded contracts by Unicef, the Pan American Health Organization and dozens of countries, many of them poor, for the supply of low-cost vaccines. The Poonawallas have now entered the pantheon of the wealthiest families in India, worth over $ 5 billion.

Horses are still everywhere. The living ones trot around emerald paddocks, the topiaries guarding the front gates and imaginative glass ornaments frozen in the central upright on the table of the baronial council room of the Serum overlooking its industrial park, where 5,000 people work.

Inside the facility that produces the candidate for the coronavirus vaccine, white-hooded scientists monitor the vital signs of bioreactors, huge stainless steel tanks in which the cellular material of the vaccine is reproduced. Visitors are not allowed inside, but can peer through the double-glazed glass.

“These cells are very delicate,” said Santosh Narwade, a serum scientist. “We have to take care of the oxygen levels and the mixing speed or the cells break.”

Her voice was nervous with excitement.

“We all feel we are giving the solution to our nation and our world,” he said.

Initial results of the Oxford-designed vaccine trial showed that it triggered antibody levels similar to those observed in the recovery of patients with Covid-19, which was considered excellent news.

The serum has already produced millions of doses of this vaccine for research and development, including large batches for ongoing studies. At the end of the trial, scheduled for November, Serum plans to accumulate 300 million doses for commercial use.

But even if this vaccine fails to win the race, the Serum Institute will still be crucial. He collaborated with other vaccine designers in the early stages of development to produce four other vaccines, although those are not yet mass-produced.

And if everyone fails, Mr. Poonawalla says he can quickly adapt his assembly lines to manufacture whatever candidate vaccine works, no matter where it comes from.

“Very few people can produce it at this cost, this scale and this speed,” he said.

With the AstraZeneca agreement, Serum can produce 1 billion doses of the Oxford vaccine for India and low- and middle-income countries during the pandemic and charge an amount not exceeding its production costs.

After the pandemic has passed, Poonawalla expects that he will be able to sell the vaccine profitably – if it works – but his biggest concern is the short term and covering his cash flow. He estimates he is spending about $ 450 million to mass-produce the Oxford vaccine.

But any deal is likely to be much smaller than what the big pharmaceutical companies got. Another difference is that those companies are vaccine developers and producers. The role of the serum, at least for the Oxford vaccine, is purely production.

Poonawalla feels it is about to change.

He is confident that the Oxford vaccine that his gleaming stainless steel machines are churning out has the best working shot. If he does, he plans to roll up his sleeve and prepare for an injection.

“It would be ridiculous,” he said, “if I spent all this money, committed everything and didn’t take it alone.”

Kai Schultz contributed to the report from New Delhi.

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