The World's Largest Vaccine Maker Took A Multimillion Dollar Pandemic Gamble

NPR tours the factory of the world's largest vaccine maker: Serum Institute of India. It's manufacturing nearly 100 million doses a month of the Oxford-AstraZeneca formula and exporting them globally.
A technician waits to collect vials containing vaccine after they pass through a machine that checks for bottling and vaccine substance deficiencies.

PUNE, India – Last spring, a father and son in India had a 5-minute chat over dinner that had the potential to change the course of the pandemic.

Cyrus and Adar Poonawalla are the founder and CEO, respectively, of the Serum Institute of India. It's the world's largest vaccine-producing company in the world's largest vaccine-producing nation.

Serum makes vaccines for measles, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis and many other diseases. It specializes in generic versions, exports to 170 countries – and estimates that two-thirds of the world's children are inoculated with its vaccines.

Then came the coronavirus – and that fateful kitchen table conversation.

Adar Poonawalla, 40, told NPR last June that he decided to invest tens of millions of dollars in glass vials alone and produce four different coronavirus vaccines, including the Oxford-AstraZeneca one. And that was before clinical trials proved any of them would work.

If these vaccines did prove effective, Serum would already have hundreds of millions of doses stockpiled, to start shipping out.

If they didn't, Serum would end up with useless vaccines — and hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

Poonawalla says it was an easy decision – one he made with his 78-year-old father, Cyrus. The company is a family business.

"Because we're privately listed and not accountable to investors and bankers and shareholders, it was just a quick five-minute chat between myself and my father," Poonawalla said.

The gamble paid off.

Factory Tour

Inside Serum's sprawling factory complex in the western Indian city of Pune, those glass vials –

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