In 1966, Cyrus Poonawalla founded the Serum Institute of India (SII) to make drugs which were, at the time, hard to domestically source in India. The first products they made included treatments for tetanus and snake venom, and the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus and measles-mumps-rubella vaccines, all of which had previously been expensive imports.
By 2020, more than 50 years later, Serum Institute of India was the largest vaccine producer in the world, with its products being exported to 170 countries all over the planet. An estimated one in three children has a vaccine from SII.
In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 cases climbed swiftly towards their first million, Poonawalla and his son Adar, now the CEO of the company, made a family decision that would prove to save hundreds of thousands, even millions, of lives.
In June of 2020, long before any of the proposed vaccines to prevent COVID-19 had been approved for widespread testing, the two Poonawallas decided to take a chance. They began producing four of the potential vaccines then, rather than wait for the results of the clinical trials.
For nearly a year now, Serum Institute of India’s facilities have been making and stockpiling doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, the Novavax vaccine, the Cogagenix nasal spray vaccine, and another unidentified COVID-19 vaccine. It was a gamble. Long before anyone knew if the Az-O vaccine was effective or even safe, SII had already invested hundreds of millions of dollars into rights and production. In December, when the vaccine was approved for broad distribution, the company had hundreds of millions of doses stored and ready to go, and their facility was making 5,000 more vials a minute.
Half of SII’s vaccine output is sold directly to the Indian government, which has been donating and selling them to other countries in diplomatic exports. The other half are being given to the people of India – for free in government clinics, or for a capped price of $3.44 per dose in private clinics.