By Eric Bellman
An Indian drug giant, little-known outside the vaccine world, has agreed to make and distribute a billion doses of a yet-to-be approved coronavirus vaccine -- a move aimed at providing pandemic protection to the world's poorest.
AstraZeneca PLC this week tapped Serum Institute of India, or SII, to be part of a global manufacturing and distribution network for a potential coronavirus vaccine being developed by University of Oxford researchers. Under the agreement, SII would be the main contract manufacturer for low- and middle-income countries and produce one billion doses -- 400 million of those this year -- if the vaccine proves safe and effective.
AstraZeneca and most of its partners plan to start manufacturing the vaccine candidate well before human trials are set to finish in September, hoping to build up a stockpile to meet commitments to quickly deliver hundreds of millions of doses. SII said Friday that it will start making the vaccine in the next two months. It wouldn't comment on what it would cost the company, or what it might charge for the vaccine.
Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla, son of the family-owned company's founder, said he is betting on Oxford's vaccine effort because of the scientists behind the effort there, and because SII has partnered with the university in the past on a malaria drug.
"We have the ability to scale up very quickly with our existing facilities," he said. "We can do a quick plug and play and stop commercial production of other vaccines."
The Oxford-AstraZeneca effort has emerged as one of a handful of promising Covid-19 vaccine projects around the world, in a race that has at times taken on nationalist tones. Last month, Moderna Inc. reported encouraging results in humans of a vaccine it has developed. The news sent its shares surging and lifted the broader market. CanSino Biologics Inc., based in Tianjin, China, has also reported promising results in a preliminary human study.
The Oxford team, along with these others, still faces tough odds. Vaccines typically take years to develop. Many past vaccine efforts have stumbled during trial stages the Oxford vaccine candidate has yet to successfully complete.
Britain's AstraZeneca has already agreed to make doses of the Oxford vaccine in the U.K. and the U.S. This week, it also signed a deal to manufacture and allocate doses, at cost, through a global distribution system set up by international foundations.
By tapping Serum Institute of India, a private company based in the western Indian city of Pune, AstraZeneca is turning to a giant in making and distributing vaccines to the developing world.
SII cranks out low-price vaccines that protect against diseases like polio, tetanus and measles, often for less than $1 a dose. Unicef, the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have all relied on SII to help push vaccination across the developing world. SII says it makes about half the vaccine doses distributed around the world -- 1.5 billion a year.
Mr. Gates called SII founder Cyrus Poonawalla a "hero" for bringing affordable vaccines to the masses at an event in November honoring top contributors to public health in India.
SII says it has the available capacity to start making the vaccine by August, as orders for other vaccines have stopped amid world-wide lockdowns. The company said it is also ready to delay some other deliveries and build new facilities to manufacture the Oxford group's vaccine.
The Poonawallas have other businesses -- including real estate, finance and green energy -- but affordable, mass-produced vaccines is the niche they dominate. The family got into vaccines in 1966 as an offshoot to the family's early business -- breeding and racing horses. They used to donate retired horses to a government company that would use them to make antitoxins to fight diseases including diphtheria, tetanus and yellow fever.
The scarcity and expense of vaccines in India at the time gave Cyrus Poonawalla an idea for a business. He jumped into vaccines, starting with tetanus and antisnake-venom vaccines. While it now excels at producing older vaccines others have developed, it also develops its own and often teams up with other international organizations.
The company estimates it has helped save 20 million lives to date by bringing vaccines to countries and people who couldn't have afforded them otherwise.
SII, with annual revenue of around $750 million, isn't listed, so Mr. Poonawalla, the CEO, said it is his family's money that he is betting, not investors.
"This is just the opportunity we have prepared for," he said. "When there is a pandemic you will need a major, low-cost manufacturer, and that is exactly what SII is."
--Denise Roland contributed to this article.
Write to Eric Bellman at email@example.com