Covid-19: Head of India’s vaccine maker flees to UK for dear life

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Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

As India groans under the world worst-case scenario in the SARS-COVID-19 pandemic, the man whom the second most populous country relies on for the miracle of vaccination, Adar Ponawalla, the CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII) has fled from India to the United Kingdom to stave off what he terms :unprecedented and real threat’ to his life and those of his family.

Covishield developed in partnership with the Oxford University and British-Swedish pharma giant AstraZeneca – is one of the three vaccines India has cleared for emergency use.

The country is breaching previous world records with an alarming daily rise in Covid cases; over 4,000 cases were reported on Saturday.

India’s daily coronavirus tally crossed the grim milestone of 400,000 on Saturday, while the death toll rose to 2,11,853 with 3,523 fresh fatalities.

In an interview with The Times, Poonawalla said he had been getting phone calls from the “most powerful” in India, including chief ministers, and business leaders, for immediate supply of the Covishield vaccine.

“Threats is an understatement. The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented. It’s overwhelming. Everyone feels they should get the vaccine. They can’t understand why anyone else should get it before them,” Poonawalla said referring to the phone calls.

Explaining the phone calls and the aggressive tone, he said, “They are saying if you don’t give us the vaccine it’s not going to be good. It’s not a foul language, it’s the tone. It’s the implication of what they might do if I don’t comply. It’s coming over and basically surrounding the place and not letting us do anything unless we give in to their demands.”

Poonawalla, who is currently in London, said, “I’m staying here (London) for an extended time because I don’t want to go back to that situation…Everything falls on my shoulders but I can’t do it alone…I don’t want to be in a situation where you are just trying to do your job, and just because you can’t supply the needs of X, Y or Z you really don’t want to guess what they are going to do.”

Poonawalla was given military protection by the Indian government in view of “potential threats” to him.

Armed commandos of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was with him every time he travelled to any part of the country, they said and added that the ‘Y’ security cover will entail a posse of about 4-5 armed commandos.

SII also plans to begin vaccine production outside India, including the UK, and his move to London is also linked to it.

“There’s going to be an announcement in the next few days,” he said on being asked if vaccines will be produced in the UK.

Earlier this week, the Centre had decided to give Y category security to Poonawalla. The government’s decision came after the director, government and regulatory affairs at SII Prakash Kumar Singh wrote to the Union Home Minister Amit Shah on April 16.

In his letter, Singh had requested the Union Home Ministry to provide security to Poonawalla. He also talked about the threats that Poonawalla had received from various groups over supplies of SII’s coronavirus vaccine.

As India battles the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic, the Centre has opened up vaccination for everyone above the age of 18 years. However, there is a shortage of vaccines with many states not able to start the vaccination for the 18-45 age group on Saturday because of lack of vaccines.

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