Pfizer CEO Shares Challenges and Triumphs of Developing First COVID Vaccine in Presidential Forum
Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle
A rising demand for new cures for disease—coupled with rapid advances in biology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing—points to a coming decade of “scientific renaissance,” Pfizer Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla told a University of Maryland audience on Monday.
Bourla, who oversaw the pharmaceutical giant’s epic—and ultimately successful—bid to introduce the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, spoke in a question-and-answer format with UMD President Darryll J. Pines at this fall’s Presidential Distinguished Forum; it also included questions posed by first-year students in Pines’ class, “Grand Challenges of Our Time.”
“Science will be able to deliver, not only because of advancements in biology, but also advancements in technology," he told the crowd at A. James Clark Hall. "And the technology is empowering."
Bourla is the author of the 2022 book, “Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible,” a behind-the-scenes look at how the company, partnering with the German biotechnology firm BioNTech, created and distributed a life-saving vaccine less than a year after the new virus emerged in China. A veteran of more than a quarter-century at the company, Bourla took over in 2019, and joked Monday he might have turned down the job had he known what was coming.
In response to Pines’ question about how it feels to be part of a small group that “saved the world”—and made in-person gatherings such as the presidential forum possible once again—Bourla simply smiled and sat back: “It feels good,” he said, followed by a round of applause.
Read on for some of the highlights from the talk.
A pre-pandemic shift toward science primed the company for vaccine success.
Soon after his appointment as chairman and CEO, Bourla initiated a transformation of Pfizer into a research-and-development-focused company able to take on the biggest challenges—like a cure for COVID—by shedding former focuses like selling generic drugs and bulking up on computing and research capabilities.
“When I took over, I felt it was at the right stage that we can bet the company on science,” he said, including a 40% increase in R&D spending and a doubling of digital tech spending. “We created a culture that was way more conducive to innovation—a culture of ‘think big.’”
The “impossibility” of the task made is what made it possible.
Had he asked for a COVID-19 vaccine in eight years, people would have prepared for the major challenge ahead: “When you ask someone to do something significantly more difficult than he’s used to, but within the normal limits of comprehension, people will try to find solutions within the box,” which the world didn’t have time for, he said. “But when you say, don’t do it within eight years, but within eight months, all will tell you that is impossible. Right—to do it with the same process.” But with an innovative, slimmed-down process and the motivation of the argument, “If not us, then who?,” Pfizer’s employees worked a near-miracle, he said.
The path to the vaccine was snarled by difficult choices.
The first challenge was deciding on a technologcal approach. Pfizer had been working with the eventual winner, mRNA, for only two years, while other companies in the race had much more experience using it as the basis for vaccines under their belts, making the science-based choice feel “counterintuitive,” he said.
Next, the company had to selected a vaccine candidate, first discarding two of four prototypes, then focusing on one good candidate and one highly promising prototype that lacked much data. “There’s no way back once you enter the study,” he said. Pfizer eventually chose the second of the two as the vaccine to introduce to the public, and touted 96% efficacy when introduced.
The third difficult decision was whether to accept “Operation Warp Speed” money from the U.S. government meant to fast-track development. But to avoid political and regulatory entanglements that risked unintentionally slowing Pfizer down, the company passed on the money. “When you take money from someone, there will be strings attached—not bad strings—but strings attached,” Bourla said.
Bourla kept the vaccine secret … briefly.
After learning that the vaccine had succeeded in clinical trials, Bourla told no one at first to avoid a spectacle. “If I told people in Operation Warp Speed, they would tell (President Donald Trump), and the president would go out and say it immediately,” he said.
He did make one call, however. “I couldn’t resist, and I called (infectious disease expert and then-Trump adviser) Tony Fauci. I told him in confidence … ‘Are you sitting?’” Bourla said. Fauci later admitted that he feared Bourla was about to drop bleak news on him about the trials. But when he heard the real news, his response was “This is game-changing. The whole world is changing from tomorrow,” Bourla said.
The COVID vaccine victory points a possible way to new cures.
The speedy development of a COVID vaccine has inspired people to ask why the same success can’t apply to intractable diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s, Bourla said. The answer comes down to two main factors: emergency-driven cooperation between rivals, as occurred during the vaccine development process, and a commitment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to accelerate glacial drug approval processes—condensing steps that once took months into days.
"We’ve proven to the world that it can be done faster,” he said. “So I think we all need to understand that we learn … important lessons from that. And we can all jointly create more good for humanity.”
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