In recent months, the chief executive of Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has come under increasingly intense pressure as pro-government voices and leaders of the state governments headed by opposition politicians criticized him alike.
Some accused him for delays in supplying vaccines; some called him a “profiteer” for not offering Covid vaccines to state governments at cost. There were calls for his company to be nationalized.
In an interview with the Times of London published on Saturday, the executive, Adar Poonawalla, described menacing calls from some of the most powerful men in India, creating an environment so ugly that he anticipated being out of the country for an extended period while he made plans to start producing vaccines elsewhere.
“‘Threats’ is an understatement,” Mr. Poonawalla said. “The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented.”
The interview reported that he had flown into London to join his wife and children hours before Britain barred travelers from India on April 23.
“I’m staying here an extended time because I don’t want to go back to that situation,” he added. “Everything falls on my shoulders but I can’t do it alone.”
The interview set off a storm on social media, with some interpreting his interest in manufacturing outside of India as a threat to move his business and others seeing him as having been driven out of the country by the viciousness of his critics.
Within hours, Mr. Poonawalla tweeted that he would be returning to India “in a few days.”
The New York Times was unable to reach Mr. Poonawalla directly on Saturday, and a request for comment from his company was not immediately returned.
India, the world’s leading producer of vaccines, is struggling to vaccinate itself out of a crisis as a voracious second wave leaves a tableau of death and despair. When cases were relatively low, the country exported more than 60 million shots. On Saturday, India expanded vaccinations to all people over 18, but many states said that they would not be able to meet the demand because of a shortage of doses.
Less than 2 percent of India’s 940 million adults have been fully vaccinated, according to data compiled from government sources by the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. The country’s biggest city, Mumbai, just halted all vaccinations because it essentially ran out, and several states reported vaccine shortages as well.
All that has made Mr. Poonawalla, a 40-year-old billionaire, a focus for public anger.
Last month, Serum Institute wrote a letter to India’s federal home minister asking for security, citing the threats to Mr. Poonawalla. Just a few days ago, the federal government said it had completed a threat assessment and would have the Central Reserve Police Force protect him. On the same day, Mr. Poonawalla announced on Twitter that he was unilaterally lowering the cost of a Covid vaccine to make it more affordable for government purchase.
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