The stud farm owners who provide 65% of the world’s kids with valuable vaccinations

Wednesday, 10 March 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The riveting story of the organisation that produces Covishield – The Serum Institute of India

The Serum Institute of India is the world's single largest vaccine producer and calls itself India’s No. 1 biotechnology company with incredible achievements to its credit. Currently, over 65% of kids worldwide use at least one of the many vaccines produced at the Serum Institute of India. To date, the Institute’s arsenal includes vaccines for mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, tetanus and hepatitis-B. 

Chairman, MD and Founder Dr. Cyrus Poonawalla, proudly states that his organisation provides each vial of these vaccines for less than the price of a cup of tea, ensuring they are widely available especially to the millions in developing countries who aren’t able to afford the prices that ‘big pharmas’ place on these lifesaving vaccines. The Serum Institute is a company with a global impact as many of its vaccines are now used in over 170 countries, many of them third world countries, providing essential treatment to millions of people in need.

The story starts not in a pharmaceutical or medical setting, but in a stud farm in 1946 when Soli Poonawalla, a Parsi gent, initiated the Poonawalla stud farms in order to breed and provide high quality horses for the racing circuits in the country. To this day the Poonawalla stud farms are one of the largest stud farms in India providing high quality horses and boasts 300 derby champs born, bred and supplied by the Poonawalla stud farm which continues to operate in Pune, India. In fact, several older buildings of the Serum Institute operate from the premises of the sprawling stud farm.

The story of how a stud farmer chose to transform into a biotechnology company is a very interesting one. In the 1960s, Soli Poonawalla’s son – Cyrus Poonawalla, felt that there was no future in horse breeding in Socialist India and sought out ways to diversify his business. He looked for something that could be an easily available product for the masses. It was interesting that the answer came from within his stud farm itself. Retired horses from the farm were donated to the Haffkine Institute of India, which was a scientific institute used to create vaccines by the Government of India. The blood of horses that had developed immunity to diseases were used to create immunity serums or vaccinations at the Institute by scientists.

Horses were administered with doses of a disease or virus and once they develop immunity, the horse’s blood was used as a base with the plasma extracted to create a serum. The story began as a doctor in the stud farm suggested to Cyrus Poonawalla that he starts a serum processing plant in the stud farm premises and provide the serum to the government instead of sending the retired horses to the Haffkine Institute. The rest as they say, is history.

Cyrus Poonawalla narrates in various interviews about the difficulties within the first 25 years in getting government permissions and aid to start the factory and then being forced to “fall on the feet” (to quote Cyrus) of Indian babus to ensure the vaccines were purchased. Cyrus Poonawalla himself has always been a risk taker, he currently has a cold room in the Serum Institute of India where vaccines of various kinds are stored at 20 degrees Celsius accompanied by over 500 million doses of a variety of vaccines stored in inventory in preparation for a pandemic.

“I want to be ready to provide people with lifesaving vaccines immediately. If we don’t store and start after its outbreak, it will be nine to 12 months before we produce which could be too late for many people” – Cyrus Poonawalla.

It’s that kind of vision and risk-taking gumption that is displayed by Cyrus Poonawalla’s son, Adar Poonawalla, who as the young CEO of the Serum Institute of India has been the face and voice of the company after the Corona Virus pandemic struck. In April 2020 when the clinical trials of the pandemic had not even ended, he boldly announced that the Serum Institute of India was going to invest money into producing the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine; $ 400 million was invested as a risk, and Adar and Cyrus Poonawalla started doing all that was necessary to produce the vaccine at about 500 doses per minute, so that countries and people get access to the lifesaving vaccine post haste.

This pioneering action of a significant entrepreneur and his family has meant that, India and many other developing countries are benefiting from the expeditious roll out of the vaccine to distressed populations.

Sri Lanka, after receiving the first batch of Covishield as a gift from the Government and the people of India, and has now ordered 10 million doses from the Serum Institute. Furthermore, developed countries such as the UK, have ordered the vaccine from the Serum Institute too.

It’s a wonderful testimony to the power of entrepreneurial zeal and its potential to create true value for all humanity. Besides, it’s a very human inspiring story of how a stud farmer and his family can be an unlikely hero and even protect the world from a merciless virus. Power to all horses, studs and the Poonawallas!

(P.S. Thanks to my friend Mayank Arora who bought the story to my attention, I then zealously researched it online by watching interviews, reading stories and stitching the story together thanks to all of these sources.)


(Santosh Menon is a marketing communications expert with 20 years of experience in multi-national locations. He can be reached at [email protected].)


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