Though hardly a household name, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer is much in the news these days for its role in accelerating the COVID-19 vaccine race. With its enormous capacity, the Serum Institute of India has made deals to manufacture 1 billion doses of both AstraZeneca’s and Novavax’s candidates for low- and middle-income countries.

That’s big, but what really makes SII stand out is its long history of providing critical, low-cost vaccines to underserved populations. From tetanus to measles to pneumococcal shots, SII makes 1.5 billion doses of vaccine annually, the vast majority of which also go to low- and middle-income countries—and reach 65% of the planet’s children—through programs administered by organizations like Unicef and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, which focuses on providing access in the poorest countries.

“They really have done an amazing job at providing high quality at very low prices,” says Seth Berkley, CEO of GAVI, which named SII founder Cyrus Poonawalla its first-ever “Vaccine Hero” in 2018. “That has been really important to what we’ve done.”

Founded in 1966, SII was a somewhat unlikely endeavor for Poonawalla, an aspiring automaker whose family was in the business of stud farms. After he learned the family’s retired horses were being donated to a government institute that used their serum to make vaccines, a scarce good in India at the time, he decided to get into the business himself. Many credit Poonawalla’s strong moral compass—as well as his decision to keep the company private—for building SII into the company it is today. (His son, Adar, who took the reins as CEO in 2011, has pursued aggressive growth—annual revenues have more than tripled since 2012, to $800 million today—while remaining loyal to his father’s mission to put purpose ahead of extreme profit.)

Berkley recalls that when other vaccine manufacturers failed to deliver product, SII would step up production to meet the need. “They never turned around and tried to increase the price to take advantage of the fact that they were needed,” says Berkley.

In the early 2000s, SII played a key role in one of global health’s great success stories: MenAfriVac, a vaccine against meningitis A that has virtually eliminated the disease in 22 countries in Africa’s “meningitis belt.” The global health organization PATH led the vaccine’s development, but it needed a manufacturer partner who could produce the vaccine at a cost of 50¢ or less per dose. “They proved to be a very, very capable organization,” says Steve Davis, the former CEO of PATH. “They’re also very, very sharp business guys.”

Indeed, MenAfriVac was good for SII too. Similar projects and partnerships with PATH followed—among others, the company has since produced a much needed, low-cost pneumococcal vaccine that gained approval last year. In the process, SII picked up some of the expertise that it’s now using to develop its own vaccines internally. That includes three possible shots against COVID-19 that the company will continue to work on while pitching in to manufacture the vaccines of others. Says Adar Poonawalla: “My own candidates, I want to take my time.” (Read Fortune's Q&A with Adar Poonawalla.)

Atul Loke—The New York Times/Redux

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As of 9/21/20
Pune, India
Adar C. Poonawalla
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