PUNE, India — In early May, an extremely well-sealed metal box arrived on the cold room of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker.
Inside, packed in dry ice, sat a tiny 1-millilitre vial from Oxford, England, containing the mobile materials for one of the world’s most promising corona virus vaccines.
Scientists in white lab coats introduced the vial to Building 14, carefully poured the contents right into a flask, added a medium of nutritional vitamins and sugar and started rising billions of cells. Thus started one of the biggest gambles yet in the quest to find the vaccine that can bring the world’s Covid-19 nightmare to an finish.
The Serum Institute, which is exclusively controlled by a small and fabulously rich Indian family and started out years ago as a horse farm, is doing what just a few other companies in the race for a vaccine are doing: mass-producing lots of of thousands and thousands of doses of a vaccine candidate that’s still in trials and might not even work.
But if it does, Adar Poonawalla, Serum’s chief executive and the only child of the company’s founder, will turn into one of the most tugged-at men in the world. He will have on hand what everybody needs, possibly in larger quantities before anybody else.
His firm, which has teamed up with the Oxford scientists creating the vaccine, was one of many first to boldly announce, in April, that it was going to mass-produce a vaccine before scientific trials even ended. Now, Mr. Poonawalla’s fastest vaccine assembly lines are being readied to crank out 500 doses each minute, and his cellphone rings endlessly.
National health ministers, prime ministers and other heads of state and mates he hasn’t heard from in years have been calling him, he said, begging for the first batches.
“I’ve had to clarify to them that, ‘Look I can’t just give it to you like this,’” he said.
With the corona virus pandemic turning the world upside down and all hopes pinned on a vaccine, the Serum Institute finds itself in the middle of an extremely competitive and murky endeavor. To get the vaccine out as soon as possible, vaccine developers say they want Serum’s mammoth assembly lines — every year, it churns out 1.5 billion doses of different vaccines, principally for poor countries, more than any other firm.
Half of the world’s youngsters have been vaccinated with Serum’s products. Scale is its specialty. Just the other day, Mr. Poonawalla received a cargo of 600 million glass vials.
However right now it’s not fully clear how much of the corona virus vaccine that Serum will mass-produce will be kept by India or who will fund its manufacturing, leaving the Poonawallas to navigate a torrent of cross-pressures, political, financial, external and domestic.
India has been walloped by the corona virus, and with 1.3 billion individuals, it needs vaccine doses as much as anywhere. It’s also led by a highly nationalistic prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose authorities has already blocked exports of drugs that had been believed to help treat Covid-19, the illness caused by the corona virus.
Adar Poonawalla, says that he’ll split the lots of of thousands and thousands of vaccine doses he produces 50-50 between India and the rest of the world, with a focus on poorer countries, and that Mr. Modi’s government has not objected to this.