The family of the Indian billionaire and self-proclaimed “prince of vaccines” Adar Poonawalla are donating £50m to Oxford University for the construction of a new research centre that will house the team who developed the AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccine.
The Poonawalla family, who own and run the world’s largest vaccine producer, Serum Institute of India (SII), announced on Wednesday that they had agreed to give the university the sum to build a new home for the Jenner Institute. The new centre on the university’s Old Road campus will be named the Poonawalla Vaccines Research building.
It will house the headquarters and main laboratory space of the Jenner Institute, the world-leading centre that created the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and produced by SII and others.
Oxford said the donation would allow the institute, which is named after the 18th-century physician and smallpox vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner, to double its research staff to 300 and develop more inoculations including a forthcoming malaria shot.
Prof Adrian Hill, the director of the Jenner Institute, said: “The striking success of the collaborative programmes on both the malaria and Covid-19 vaccines between the Serum Institute of India and Oxford University has highlighted the great potential of partnerships between leading universities and large-scale manufacturers to develop and supply vaccines for very cost-effective deployment at exceptional scale.
“We look forward to a wider range of vaccine activities in the future building on this generous support from the Poonawalla family.”
The donation will be made through SII’s London subsidiary Serum Life Sciences, which is chaired by Adar Poonawalla’s wife, Natasha.
“Vaccines save lives, and the development of vaccines has been the lifelong focus of the Poonawalla family,” she said. “We are committed to developing and supplying vaccines to people who need them most. To make this happen, we build many scientific collaborations with the world’s leading research institutes but today, we are making this keystone donation to give the world-class team at Oxford a brand new facility from which to take their research to the next level.”
Vaccines have made the Poonawallas extraordinarily wealthy. They are the sixth richest family in India, with an estimated $15bn (£11bn) fortune, according to the Times of India.
SII is the world’s largest vaccine producer, and even before coronavirus struck it was making more than 1.5bn jabs a year for everything from polio and diphtheria to tetanus, BCG, hepatitis B and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations.
Producing vaccines was not Adar Poonawalla’s idea. His father, Cyrus, founded SII in 1966 as a sideline to his 81-hectare (200-acre) thoroughbred racehorse stables Poonawalla Stud. Serum from purified horse blood was used in the production of early vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, and scarlet fever.
But it was Adar who convinced his father to “go big” on vaccines after he watched a Bill Gates talk in 2015, in which the billionaire Microsoft co-founder-turned philanthropist warned that the world was not prepared for a new viral pandemic.
“I wanted to be prepared for a pandemic-level event ever since I heard Bill Gates in a Ted talk where he clearly said that we should be more worried and prepared for such situations,” Poonawalla told the Hindustan Times.
The “vaccine prince” title stuck when Poonawalla was appointed chief executive of SII in 2011, replacing his “vaccine king” father, who is now chair of the wider Poonawalla Group, which includes SII.
“Nobody wishes for a pandemic, but we were almost designed for one,” he told the Guardian earlier this year from his office inside a converted Airbus A320 jet, which he described as “kind of similar to Air Force One”.
“We produce a 1.5bn vaccine doses each year. We never imagined the whole world being so dependent on us, but nobody else has our capacity to scale up,” he said.
Among the family’s portfolio of properties is Lincoln House, a Mumbai mansion that is the former US embassy to India. At $113m it was the most expensive Indian home ever sold when they bought it in 2015.
The family is also renting a Mayfair mansion for a record £50,000 a week. The property, which at 2,300 sq metres (25,000 sq ft) is 24 times the size of the average English home, comes with an adjoining guest house and backs on to one of Mayfair’s “secret gardens”. He is renting it from the Polish billionaire Dominika Kulczyk, who bought it for £57m last year.
The Poonawallas also own paintings by Picasso, Dalí, Rembrandt and Rubens, and a collection of 35 rare luxury cars including several Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, as well as a Mercedes S350 converted into a replica Batmobile.
The family follow a list of other billionaires who have donated to Oxford in recent months, including the Vietnamese airline tycoon Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao who donated £155m to Linacre College last month; Jim Ratcliffe’s petrochemicals company Ineos gave £100m in January for a new antibiotics research institute; and the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and his family gave £3.5m last year for the right to rename Hill’s position at the university as the “Lakshmi Mittal and family professorship of vaccinology”.