Stelis CEO steps down after Indian firm signs deal for Russia vaccine

The chief executive officer of Stelis Biopharma Pvt Ltd. stepped down from the Indian pharmaceutical firm barely a year after taking the helm, and days after the company announced a deal to manufacturer at least 200 million doses of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine.

Roger Lias, who accepted the CEO job at unlisted Stelis in late 2019 when the pandemic was in its early stages, left on March 31, according to an automated out-of-office email Bloomberg News received from his account.

“I continue to support the company,” he said, according to the email.

Stelis and its majority owner Strides Pharma Science Ltd. -- both headquartered in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru -- have yet to publicly announce his departure, but Lias’ profile is now absent from the Stelis website.

Lias and officials from both companies didn’t immediately respond to further requests for comment.

Stelis is one of half a dozen Indian manufacturers that in recent weeks have announced they will produce hundreds of millions of doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine as India becomes increasingly overwhelmed by a new and rapidly spreading Covid-19 wave. The company’s partnership with the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund was revealed on March 19, with Strides Chairman Arun Kumar pledging to try “increase the availability of the vaccine beyond our initial commitments.”

Sputnik V was the third such shot granted emergency use approval in India, as the country races to curtail a record daily surge in infections. The Gamaleya National Research Center and the Russian Direct Investment Fund said in a statement this week that Sputnik V showed a 97.6% efficacy rate.

‘Ugly Head’

Lias hasn’t given a reason for his departure. But in a February article he wrote for Life Science Leader magazine, he described how his initial plans to shuttle between India and the U.S. were frustrated by the widespread disruption to travel wrought by the pandemic.

“I was ready for a new and challenging opportunity and spent time working on the necessary mechanisms and obtaining the required visas to allow me to spend up to 100 days a year in India while also running the U.S. subsidiary,” he wrote. “The challenges would undoubtedly be considerable, but little did I know at the time that the Covid-19 global pandemic was about to rear its ugly head -- early March was the last time I set foot in India before the advent of lockdowns and travel restrictions.”

Later that month India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a sudden national lockdown in the face of rising infections. The tight restrictions ultimately failed to save India from the grip of the disease. The country is now in the midst of a second, highly virulent wave that threatens to break its health system.

Earlier this week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson canceled a planned trip to India, where he was due to meet Modi and lobby for a trade deal. The U.K. government added the South Asian nation to its travel ban list after the emergence of a new mutant variant in both countries that scientists fear could prove partly resistant to vaccines.

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