To mark the year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla penned an open letter, reflecting on a year of loss and discovery.
He praised his employees and the pharmaceutical industry for its ability to innovate and collaborate. (Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech received the first authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020.)
Bourla spoke with Fast Company about the anniversary of the pandemic, responded to criticisms of his company’s plans to increase the price of the vaccine over time, and discussed what’s next for Pfizer. Edited excerpts follow.
Fast Company: For Pfizer, this anniversary is more than a milestone.
Albert Bourla: During anniversaries, you have a time to reflect on what happened, particularly in the first anniversary. It is always quite emotional, but no one, I think, would have expected in the middle of this pandemic that we would have a path to liberation. The ministry of health of Israel, a country that has already vaccinated more than half of the population, released data demonstrating that the efficacy was 97%, but most important was that they had 94% [effectiveness] against asymptomatic infections. Those are typically the largest spreaders of the disease, because you have the virus and you don’t know you have it, so you don’t take any measures to protect others. So to see that on the first anniversary . . . it’s a celebration of human ingenuity on the part of science.
You talked about the importance of science in your open letter, and Pfizer’s new branding underscores science as being at the root of the company. What’s the significance of highlighting science at this moment in time?
There is a significant of science for the world, and there is a significance of science for us. We started a major transformation of the company when I took over. Not because “we have a new sheriff in town,” but because of the success of my predecessor, I was able to take a very big bet on the science of the company. So within six months we divested all of the businesses that were not science-based, like consumer businesses, and we doubled down with acquisitions on our scientific portfolio.
After a recent interview with Axios, in which you talked about the importance of affordable pricing for the vaccine, Rep. Katie Porter tweeted that Pfizer’s stance is hypocritical because your CFO has said on earnings calls that after we get out of pandemic pricing, the price of the vaccine will have to go up. Can you respond?
I don’t agree with her concerns. There is a cost of innovation, and there needs to be incentives for innovation. I think our example should be very much what will drive the behavior of other companies in the next pandemic. If this company’s shareholders lose money, very few companies will try to mimic what we did. The vaccines are free for every citizen. So it’s only a question of what the healthcare system will pay or the government would pay for a vaccine. The healthcare system creates incentives for individuals to get vaccines because it’s very cost-effective.
The fact that we are giving vaccines in a pandemic situation, at a very low price—I don’t think it should be an obstacle when there is open market, when there are enough quantities for all. So when there’s a lot of free choice [of vaccine suppliers], maybe [the pricing] moves a little bit closer to what the current products of similar technologies are. I think that would be only appropriate.
Do companies like Pfizer need to do a better job of reminding consumers of the importance of science, the way tech companies have trumpeted the benefits of software and hardware?
I think we should do better job in doing that. The pandemic created such an intense questioning of science, a severe politicization of the whole pandemic. So is it [good science] to wear a mask because it will protect society? Yes, but it became a political debate rather than scientific debate. I think we should tell the story. We should be transparent, but I think even more than us, I think others should tell the story because they will be even more believable. Science is the demonstration of human ingenuity. Scientists are taking the collective knowledge of the past and rebuilding something even better. And they will continue doing it.
What were some of the stories of personal sacrifice Pfizer employees made in order to achieve a COVID-19 vaccine in record time?
People went above and beyond because they had a sense of duty. [One executive] I was working with very closely in developing the vaccine, his wife got COVID and she became very sick and she went into intensive care. And that was during a period that he and I had to make decisions about the COVID vaccine. And I will never forget his dedication and focus, even when his beloved wife was in danger. There were a lot of those stories, and it was a clear motivation that it’s our duty. The world is waiting for us.
You’ve said the collaboration we saw within the industry was unprecedented. What are some examples?
There was collaboration like the one you saw between us and BioNTech, and many other companies did this type of collaboration, but also helping one another with their projects. For example, when Remdesivir became the first registered [treatment] against the COVID disease, we spoke with Gilead and we started manufacturing for them because they couldn’t do it. We’re not in the business of manufacturing for others but that was an ethical and moral obligation. You saw a similar situation with J&J and Merck, and they have joined resources [to produce Johnson & Johnson’s COVID vaccine].
At the beginning of the crisis, we issued a five-point plan, and we made the call to smaller companies. If they felt that they have something for COVID and they needed our help, they could reach out to us. We received 400 requests. Some needed [advice from] scientists, others needed [one of our] machines to run a test, others asked for manufacturing capacity. It was a great moment for this industry.
Is this collaboration just crisis behavior, or do you think that there will be other opportunities to come together?
Look, make no mistake. There was this competitive spirit, but it was good sportsmanship that eventually helped the world. Clearly our scientists wanted to [have an approved vaccine] before Moderna, and certainly Moderna wanted to be before Pfizer. We were were highly motivated to be able to do a good thing for humanity and both the collaboration and the competitive spirit was what helped us to create what we created.
What’s next for Pfizer?
We were already on a path to have a research machine that can do better than many others. We have a research machine that can deliver breakthroughs, that saves patients’ lives. If anything, we are not changing direction after COVID, we are accelerating. We will continue investing heavily in science. We will continue simplifying the process in the company to make it as nimble as possible with the resources of Big Pharma, but with the agility of a smaller biotech company.
And what will we do that is new? It is that in addition to all the areas that we were marching—oncology, rare diseases, gene therapy, all of these therapeutic areas—now suddenly we’ve concentrated 10 years of expertise into one for this mRNA [messenger RNA] platform. We accelerated investments and built infrastructure that usually would take five years in 18 months. It’s not completed yet, but it’s about to be completed. It’s clear to me that the mRNA platform has proven dramatic therapeutic effects, and we have proven that we are mastering it. So for me, the next step would be keep COVID under control and take on many other diseases that could be tackled through this technology.
Article originally published on fastcompany.com. Author: Stephanie Mehta, Editor-in-Chief, Fast Company (US).