Poonawalla & Ella’s Contrasting Stories Converge on COVID Vaccine

Poonawalla’s father founded the SII in 1966, while Bharat Biotech started in 1996 by Krishna M. Ella and his wife.

Published
India
5 min read
Serum Institute of India was founded in 1966 while Bharat Biotech started in 1996 by Krishna M. Ella and his wife. 
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Prior to vaccine shots, the nation was witness to vaccine potshots.

Simmering undercurrents of corporate rivalry erupted into vocal corporate hostility between India’s two COVID-19 vaccine makers. The heads of the Pune-based Serum Institute, manufacturing the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in India, and the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, producing a home-grown vaccine, have questioned the credentials of each other’s vaccine.

However, less than 24-hours after a bitter war of words between Adar Poonawalla, CEO, Serum Institute of India and Krishma M Ella, Chairman and Managing Director, Bharat Biotech, on Tuesday, 5 January, both appeared to have patched up.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, the two vaccine makers called a truce and pledged to work together for a “smooth rollout” of COVID-19 vaccines.

However, as both Poonawalla and Ella grabbed headlines, here’s a look at their profiles, separate journeys and convergence as the vaccine makers to a nation of 130 crore Indians desperately waiting to emerge from the grip of the coronavirus.

Origin Story

ADAR POONAWALLA

Adar Poonawalla and Ella have had contrasting stories and have charted different paths. Poonawalla’s father, Cyrus Poonawalla, founded the Serum Institute in 1966. Adar inherited a company known to be the largest vaccine makers in the world by number of doses manufactured.

Born in 1981, the 39 year old went to the University of Westminster in London before joining the company in 2001.

Forbes Magazine’s 2020 list of the richest Indians ranks Cyrus Poonawalla sixth with a net worth of $11.6 billion. The Cyrus Poonawalla Group of Companies headquartered in Pune, is a diversified group with business interests that include Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology, Finance, Clean Energy, Hospitality & Realty and Aviation.

Moreover, the Poonawalla family has been breeding and racing thoroughbreds in India since 1946 and is among the leading stud farms in the country.

KRISHNA M ELLA

Krishna M Ella, on the other hand, is neither a face one may be familiar with, nor has Bharat Biotech been a household name until now. According to the company wesbite, a gold medallist, Dr Ella worked as a research faculty at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, after earning his PhD in biochemitry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ella’s story, however, has cinematic elements of a rise from a humble rural background to being a czar of India’s “genome valley” in Hyderabad.

Hailing from a village near Thiruthani in Tamil Nadu, Ella was born into a farming family. “We were not wealthy farmers, just middle class. There were no businessmen or entrepreneurs or professionals in the family; only farmers,” Ella said in an interview to Rediff in 2011.

Ella, after completing his graduation in Agricultural Sciences, earned a Rotary’s Freedom from Hunger Fellowship to study in the United States. “I would not have gone to study there if not for the scholarship,” he said in the Rediff interview.

SII & Bharat Biotech

SERUM INSTITUTE OF INDIA

The SII counts as the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by number of doses produced and sold globally (more than 1.5 billion doses) which includes the Polio vaccine as well as those for Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps and Rubella.

According to the company, “It is estimated that about 65 percent of the children in the world receive at least one vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute.”

Vaccines manufactured by the SII are accredited by the World Health Organization (WHO), Geneva, and are being used in around 170 countries across the globe in their national immunisation programmes, saving millions of lives throughout the world.

BHARAT BIOTECH

Bharat Biotech started operations in 1996 – the year Dr Krishna M Ella and his wife Suchitra Ella returned from the US to set up a company dedicated to creating innovative vaccines and bio-therapeutics.

“Dr Ella was returning from a research and teaching stint in the US and he wanted the new company to be an intellectual capital powerhouse. In the years that followed, he assembled a team of bright scientists and led the creation of path-breaking vaccines,” the company site says.

Milestones

SERUM INSTITUTE

The SII made its first International acquisition by acquiring Bilthoven Biologicals, a bioengineering and pharmaceutical company, from The Netherlands Government in 2012 for an estimated cost of Rs 550 crore. The takeover ensures access to technology and expertise for making the IPV (Injectable Polio Vaccine, Salk), earlier possessed by only three other vaccine manufacturers.

BHARAT BIOTECH

In 2016, Bharat Biotech becomes the first company in the world to file a global patent for Zika vaccine.

Ella says in his interview that the “Genome Valley” in Hyderabad was born in 1996 when he had made a presentation to Chandrababu Naidu, the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, on the need to have a biotech knowledge park.

“We requested for land from APIIC (Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation) where we should set up only knowledge industries and not polluting ones,” Ella said, adding, “a Government Order was passed accordingly as it was a new concept in India.”

Bharat Biotech's Hepatitis vaccine plant was the first one there, followed by the ICICI Knowledge Park and many other industries that came up later. Finally, it culminated as Genome Valley.

The COVID ‘Test’

On 3 January, Poonawalla had told NDTV that only Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca had proven efficacy and added that other vaccine candidates, including Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, were “safe, just like water.”

In response to this, an indignant Ella had retorted, “We do 200 percent honest clinical trials and yet we receive backlash. If I am wrong, tell me. Some companies have branded me like 'water'. I want to deny that. We are scientists."

While AstraZeneca-Oxford University’s Covishield has completed its phase three trials, Covaxin has only completed clinical trials for Phase 1 and 2. The third phase, which tests for efficacy, is still underway.

In a virtual press conference, an indignant Ella said that his firm is a “global company and not one without any vaccine experience,” after questions were raised by experts over the approval given to Covaxin, which is still under Phase 3 trials.

“We have manufactured 16 vaccines. We function globally, not just in India,” Krishna Ella told reporters.

The Patch Up

However, a dramatic truce came through on Tuesday, 5 January, less than a day after the two vaccine manufacturers traded barbs at each other.

The SII and Bharat Biotech, both of whose vaccines received emergency approval in India, on Tuesday, issued a joint statement to "communicate their pledge towards a smooth rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to India and the world."

Coming amid concerns expressed over the approval process for the vaccines, especially that of Bharat Biotech's 'Covaxin', the statement said, "Adar Poonawalla and Dr Krishna Ella, jointly on behalf of the two companies, today communicated their combined intent to develop, manufacture and supply the COVID-19 vaccines for India and globally.

They said, the more important task in front of them is saving the lives and livelihoods of populations in India and the world."

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