Adar Poonawalla can easily be termed as the poster boy of India’s vaccination drive. Rising to the challenge posed by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chief Executive of Serum Institute of India (SII) toiled hard to produce Covishield—the first Covid-19 vaccine in India to receive emergency use approval for public use.
Despite this being a golden business opportunity, Poonawalla says he always kept the company’s focus on the safety of people. When Covishield was made available to the government initially in January 2021, SII had announced a price `400 per dose to states and `600 to private hospitals. However, by April 2021, Poonawalla slashed the price per dose to states to `300.
Founded in 1966 by Poonawalla’s father Cyrus, the biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals company became the world’s largest vaccine producer in terms of number of doses produced as of 2020. Currently, the company manufactures 1.5 billion doses of vaccines annually, including 200 million doses of Covishield. Apart from Covishield, it also manufactures vaccines for tuberculosis, polio, etc.
With the pandemic calling for a swift response, SII partnered with British-Swedish pharmaceutical major AstraZeneca, which had already developed a vaccine candidate AZD1222 in partnership with the University of Oxford. SII started manufacturing it under a licence, with Covishield as the brand name. Bolstered by the sales of Covishield, SII’s revenues soared—from Rs 5,238 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 7,201 crore in 2020-21.
The success, however, came with a lot of challenges and labour for the 41-year-old Poonawalla. “In early 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic, we knew very little about the virus. We barely knew what technologies and vaccines would work. The first challenge was to decide whether I should get into this, and risk money, time, and capital resources or not? But as a manufacturer, I wanted to serve my people and my country,” he says.
With the decision on producing vaccines done, SII then had to restructure its facilities, add manpower of over 1,000 people, and provide them with adequate training for operating the additional equipment. The challenges, though, had just started.
“Flights were grounded in 2020 and the cargo was limited. Only essential services through diplomatic channels and other ways and means were possible. Getting the equipment was difficult; getting people to instal it was even tougher. But as we overcame challenges, we started stockpiling the doses ahead of time. That is what really differentiated us from anyone else. At the end of 2021, we delivered 1.5 billion doses, which is more than anyone else,” says Poonawalla.
The winner of the Special Jury Award in the BT-PwC India’s Best CEOs ranking credits his employees for achieving this mammoth feat in such difficult times. “Handling the challenges of this magnitude with the kind of ethical and moral responsibility was extremely stressful, but I managed to compartmentalise each challenge every day and thanks to my wonderful team that worked day in and day out, we dealt with it all,” says Poonawalla, who took the reins at SII as CEO in 2011. Soon after, he played a pivotal role in the acquisition of Bilthoven Biologicals, a Netherlands-based government vaccine manufacturing company. He was also instrumental in the launch of SII’s oral polio vaccine that has been its bestseller.
People who work closely with him have nothing but praise for his leadership and support. Parag Deshmukh, Director of International Business, SII, takes a cue from American basketball coach John Wooden’s book Pyramid of Success. On the right-hand side, besides patience, there are four additional aspects—integrity, reliability, honesty and sincerity. “By that very definition, Poonawalla is a leader who embodies all of these qualities together, professionally as well as personally,” he says. “I joined SII in 2007 and over the decade, I have witnessed him transform the face of global vaccine manufacturing with his undeterred commitment, strong resolve and the willingness to go beyond the bare necessity.”
Poonawalla is respectful towards his employees and fosters a positive and conducive work environment. This usually means no long working hours unless you are trying to save the world in the middle of a pandemic. He instills confidence amongst his colleagues and encourages them to trust their judgement on operational decisions. “It has resulted in SII achieving several milestones in the industry. One of the crucial things is our presence across 171 nations—especially our foray into regulated markets such as Canada, the UK, and some other developed countries,” says Deshmukh.
In today’s time, it is important for business leaders to adapt to a rapidly evolving environment. Poonawalla is someone who realises that. He is aware that one can’t always deal with difficult situations with a set playbook. “To me, Poonawalla is someone who sets the benchmark of true leadership. His approach to business with compassion and thoughtfulness is aligned with the philosophy of the Serum Institute of India. More than a businessman, he is a change-maker—trailblazing and redefining the essence of business for good,” says Deshmukh.
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