Adar Poonawalla, 40, the leader of the Serum Institute (SI), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by doses produced, has said intimidation has forced him to flee India.
He told the Times of London he fled to England to escape threats from people claiming he’s holding up vaccine production.
The SI, founded in 1966 by his father, Cyrus Poonawalla, produces more than 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccine every month but it’s not enough now.
The Covid-19 situation in India is so dire that Poonawalla said people have been hurling aggressive threats at him, accusing him of delaying vaccines on purpose.
“It’s overwhelming. Everyone feels they should get the vaccine. They can’t understand why anyone else should get it before them,” he said. “They are saying if you don’t give us the vaccine it’s not going to be good for you.”
At the time of his interview, Poonawalla said he’d stay in England for “an extended time, because I don’t want to go back to that situation”.
However, hours after the interview was published, Poonawalla backtracked and tweeted that he’d return to India “in a few days”.
The news of his departure from India comes as the country experiences deep surges in positive Covid-19 cases.
The situation is now so bad that people have surrounded his company multiple times and called him a “profiteer” of the Covid-19 vaccines.
“I don’t think even God could have forecast it was going to get this bad,” Poonawalla told the Times.
He said he did not boost vaccine production because he did not think they would need to make over a billion doses a year.
He told The Indian Financial Times that his company has been maligned by politicians and critics over shortages of vaccines. He said that the government, not the Serum Institute, was responsible for policy decisions.
When new coronavirus cases were declining, the authorities did not expect they would have to face further waves of the pandemic, he maintained. “Everybody really felt that India had started to turn the tide on the pandemic.”
Analysts believe that India should have invested in boosting manufacturing capacity earlier and so secured enough vaccine shots.
“It is absolutely essential that you need to have something to deliver, it is common sense,” Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi-based public health expert, told The Financial Times. She added that the government has not been transparent on its vaccine policy.
The Serum Institute has just converted a production line to make more vaccines.
“We have just done this right now to address the ridiculous shortage that the nation, and obviously now the world even, has,” said Poonawalla.
But he indicated that India’s and the world’s Covid-19 vaccine shortage would continue through July at least.