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Indian Company Starts Mass-Producing Coronavirus Vaccines Before Trials


A global race is underway to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Scientists are trying to do this in record time. And India is a big part of that effort. India is the world's biggest drug maker and often called the pharmacy of the world. Now one Indian company is doing something totally unprecedented. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Adar Poonawalla is 39, now in charge of the family business, a vaccine company founded by his father.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Serum Institute was founded by Dr. Cyrus Poonawalla in 1966.

FRAYER: The company is the world's largest vaccine producer by volume. Its polio, tetanus and measles vaccines normally take years to bring to market through clinical trials, regulatory approval and then manufacturing. But these are not normal times. And so when it comes to the coronavirus, Poonawalla is skipping some of those steps.


ADAR POONAWALLA: I've gone ahead and bought the glass vials and containers. It's a big risk because we're talking about hundreds of millions of doses.

FRAYER: He's jumpstarted mass production of four different coronavirus vaccines, spending tens of millions of dollars on glass vials alone even before clinical trials determine whether any of them work.


POONAWALLA: These technologies haven't been proven yet. That's why we're doing a bunch. So we're hedging our bets.

FRAYER: He's partnering with Oxford University, AstraZeneca and two other pharmaceutical companies. The idea is that if any of their clinical trials succeed, Poonawalla will already have hundreds of millions of doses to hand out. But this is a gamble. It's possible none of the four will work. He may end up with millions of doses of useless vaccines or he may help save humanity. It was an easy decision, he says.


POONAWALLA: Because we're privately listed and not accountable to investors and bankers and shareholders. It was just a quick five-minute chat between myself and my father.

FRAYER: And they decided, let's do this. Rory Horner at the University of Manchester in England has spent years studying India's pharmaceutical industry and believes it'll prove crucial in the race for a coronavirus vaccine.

RORY HORNER: This is a question not of just winning the race but actually making sure the volume is there, and for that reason, India is really, really essential.

FRAYER: India is already the world's largest producer of hydroxychloroquine and other coronavirus treatments. Horner says India is likely to play a role in any successful vaccine as well.

HORNER: There's the Serum Institute role in mass manufacturing. The other way is in actually developing a vaccine. And we've seen potential to fast-track an Indian indigenous-developed vaccine by Bharat Biotech.

FRAYER: Bharat Biotech is another Indian company currently testing its own coronavirus vaccines. Praveen Ram is a company spokesman.

PRAVEEN RAM: We actually moved our personnel into the graveyard shifts, you know, on a staggered (ph) basis so that there is more distance between people because it is the call of our lives, the fight of our lives.

FRAYER: He says Indian biotech companies have gotten curfew passes for employees and scrambled to squeeze these new coronavirus projects into existing laboratories because they can't halt work on other lifesaving medicines. The Indian government has funded some of these clinical trials. It's desperate for a vaccine, too.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: India reports the highest single-day spike of new COVID-19 cases.

FRAYER: India has just surpassed Russia to become the third-worst-affected country. Only the U.S. and Brazil have more cases. And so Poonawalla, the Serum Institute CEO, says that if any of his vaccines are viable, he's making a promise.


POONAWALLA: Out of whatever I produce, 50% to India and 50% to the rest of the world.

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.