Skip to main content

2022 Remarks About Dean’s Medal Recipient Dr. Cyrus Poonawalla

May 21, 2022

We have one more honor to share today: the Dean’s Medal, which is the highest recognition that the School confers on public health leaders.

It is my honor to bestow the Dean’s medal on Dr. Cyrus Poonawalla. Dr. Poonawalla, I invite you to join me at the lectern.

Dr. Poonawalla is the founder, chairman, and managing director of the Serum Institute of India, ranked as India’s number one biotechnology company and the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by number of doses produced and sold globally.

The Serum Institute began in a rather unexpected place: on the Poonawalla family’s horse farm. During a chance conversation with a vet, Dr. Poonawalla learned that their retired horses were donated to government-owned Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, which made vaccines from horse serum. Dr. Poonawalla figured he could take up the challenge of meeting the demand for vaccines in the country by extracting the serum from horses and producing cost-effective vaccines.

It was a bold idea—but soon he had done it. His biotech company launched its therapeutic anti-tetanus serum and anti-snake venom serum first, and within two years began producing tetanus vaccines. Over time, SII’s vaccine repertoire grew to include vaccines for polio, diphtheria, pertussis, hib, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and measles, mumps, and rubella, along with India’s first pneumococcal vaccine, improving vaccine affordability and enabling sustainable access for low- and middle-income countries.

Dr. Poonawalla’s goal was nothing less than to see every child protected. India’s highly-successful National Program of Immunization is largely dependent on the vaccines manufactured by Serum Institute, and the philosophy of that program has proliferated worldwide to International U.N. Agencies. By 1998, the Serum Institute was exporting vaccines to more than 100 countries. By 2000, half the children in the world were receiving Serum Institute vaccines. Today, it is estimated that Serum vaccines have protected two-thirds of the infant population.

SII has saved more than 30 million children worldwide by supplying cost-effective vaccines against life-threatening diseases, and it continues to save more lives in the face of the pandemic.

In April 2020, it was due to Dr. Poonawalla’s vision and efforts that his company was able to act quickly during the early stages of the pandemic, making an “at-risk” investment to scale up its vaccine manufacturing capacity and provide the much-needed COVID-19 vaccine at an affordable price for India and the world. His company has exceeded its target by producing 1.8 billion doses of COVISHIELD, while being responsible for vaccinating 90% of India’s eligible population.

The Serum Institute has now produced more than 25 billion vaccine doses (1.5 billion vaccine doses annually) and more than 1.8 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Poonawalla remains deeply committed to providing affordable and high-quality vaccines across the globe.

And I am told that somehow, through all of that, he still finds time to enjoy his family’s horses!

This medal was officially conferred on Dr. Poonawalla back in 2020. Today, we finally have the opportunity to recognize him in person. We are so honored that he made the journey to be with us.

Dr. Poonawalla—thank you for your innovative thinking, for the billions of vaccines you have produced, and for your devotion to children everywhere.

Please join me in congratulating Dr. Poonawalla on this special honor.   

— Dean Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD ’79, ScM ’75