As COVID-19 vaccination efforts hit production, supply chain and distribution snags worldwide, Serum Institute of India’s proactive approach is paying off.

Serum Institute of India (SII) is a family-owned biotechnology and pharmaceutical company, the top biotech firm in India, and the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. It is also an organization with an uncommon ability to rapidly ramp up vaccine production and exports. Just eight days after the World Health Organization listed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use in February, SII dispatched a shipment of 70 million shots for distribution in India and 25 other countries in the COVAX programme, aimed at poorer countries.

Since then, SII has continued to increase production, and is now exporting to countries within and outside of COVAX. On March 4, Canada received its first 500,000 doses from the company. Apart from its ability to meet the mass vaccination challenge, SII differs from other pharmaceutical firms producing COVID-19 vaccines in several ways. One is that its shots are cheap, and they do not require storage at ultra-low temperatures, making them ideal for distribution in developing countries. Further, SII sells its vaccines mainly to national health authorities. These customers tend to prioritize low prices and reliable supply, where the Indian firm shines.

CEO Adar Poonawalla said that by the end of the year, SII will add 1.5 billion COVID-19 shots to the 1.3 to 1.5 billion other vaccines it produces annually. This will include not only the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, but most likely another vaccine being developed by American biotechnology firm Novavax. There are a few others on SII’s radar that have potential as well. Based on SII’s output versus that of other firms, Poonawalla estimates his company could account ultimately for some 40-50% of global supply.

Apart from a focus on developing markets, SII’s rapid rise can be attributed to a bold move it made early on. Rather than investing in capacity and distribution after years of research and clinical trials, it started producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine prior to clinical trials. The Economist reports that SII made an initial investment of $80 million to produce the shot – at its billionaire owners’ expense. Support from other sources followed, enabling SII to double production capacity. It did so quickly, Poonawalla said, thanks to a strategy of installing “excess capacity ahead of demand”.

Also working in SII’s favour are its strong collaborative relationships with pharmaceutical firms as well as companies all along the supply chain. This should serve it well moving forward. As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on and likely becomes endemic throughout the world, demand for vaccines will be ongoing. The scourge of COVID-19 has also shined a spotlight on vaccines in general. Poonawalla is confident that his company will continue to maintain its lead.

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