Pfizer CEO: ‘We can have a vac­cine by Oc­to­ber’

Al­bert Bourla talks to Kathimerin­i about the search for a Covid-19 cure, his Greek roots and the coun­try’s suc­cess in man­ag­ing the pan­demic

Kathimerini English - - Front Page - BY ALEXIS PAPACHELAS

Work­ing in a news or­ga­ni­za­tion gives you the op­por­tu­nity to meet im­por­tant peo­ple with fas­ci­nat­ing per­sonal and pro­fes­sional his­to­ries. It is a sort of an­ti­dote to the tox­i­c­ity of the pub­lic sphere.

I first heard of Al­bert Bourla a few months ago. I read that he is Greek but could never have imag­ined just how Greek he really is. When I sent him the first email in English, he replied that he is a “real Greek” and in our en­su­ing Skype con­ver­sa­tions I re­al­ized that he has per­fect com­mand of the lan­guage, fol­lows de­vel­op­ments in Greece closely and really cares about the coun­try.

Bourla is chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer at the multi­na­tional phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal gi­ant Pfizer. Apart from a suc­cess­ful ex­ec­u­tive, he is also of­ten on the tele­phone with US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, dis­cussing the coro­n­avirus cri­sis.

In his na­tive Thes­sa­loniki he is known as Akis. He hails from an old Jewish fam­ily and grad­u­ated with a PhD in vet­eri­nary medicine from Aris­to­tle Univer­sity. He vis­its the north­ern port city of­ten and is, nat­u­rally, a big fan of Halkidiki, the re­gion’s most pop­u­lar hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion.

Bourla has de­vel­oped a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Greek Prime Min­is­ter Kyr­i­akos Mit­so­takis and has in­vested in the cre­ation of a Pfizer hub in Thes­sa­loniki, which will start op­er­at­ing in the fall with a staff of around 200.

In this on­line in­ter­view from his home in New York, Bourla speaks about the de­vel­op­ment of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine and how ac­ces­si­ble he be­lieves it will be, par­tic­u­larly among poorer coun­tries. He ex­plains what be­ing Greek means to him and how the brain drain can be re­versed for the coun­try to take off. He is also very proud of how Greece’s im­age has changed fol­low­ing its suc­cess­ful han­dling of the coro­n­avirus out­break.

Thank you for your in­ter­est; it is a great plea­sure to be talk­ing to you. Yes, I was born, grew up, stud­ied, fell in love and got mar­ried in Thes­sa­loniki. Thes­sa­loniki was and re­mains the epi­cen­ter of my life.

My Greek iden­tity is pro­nounced and my mem­o­ries of Greece have marked me. I was al­ready a grown-up when I left Greece, around 34 or 35 years old. That means that I spent all my char­ac­ter-form­ing years in Greece. All my friends are friends I had back then. Ev­ery sum­mer I re­turn to Greece and my friends are wait­ing for me and we go on hol­i­day to­gether. Ev­ery sum­mer.

Yes, I have a house in Halkidiki, which I bought in 2009. Be­fore that we went on is­land hol­i­days. But my best friend bought a house next to mine the fol­low­ing year and we have spent [the sum­mers] to­gether ever since. My sis­ter and her chil­dren, as well as my in­laws, live in Thes­sa­loniki. We have very strong ties and this made me trans­fer my Greek iden­tity onto my chil­dren, who have only lived in Greece dur­ing the hol­i­days. But also my body lan­guage, my be­hav­ior, makes it very ob­vi­ous to peo­ple who know me in the United States, my col­leagues, that I am not a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can, but rather a typ­i­cal Greek.

It is a great priv­i­lege be­cause you can make a dif­fer­ence, but it is also a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity and I must con­fess I feel this re­spon­si­bil­ity weigh­ing heav­ily on my shoul­ders. Be­ing a CEO of a very large com­pany, in what­ever sec­tor, cre­ates huge re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, since you are a global em­ployer. You have to make de­ci­sions in the midst of the pan­demic about how you will en­sure the safety of your em­ploy­ees, how you will pro­tect the safety of the com­mu­ni­ties in which your com­pany is ac­tive, and I un­der­stood im­me­di­ately we must also find a so­lu­tion to the cri­sis by man­u­fac­tur­ing a vac­cine or an an­tivi­ral drug.

When we be­gan our ef­forts a few months ago, I was won­der­ing if we could come up with a vac­cine. Now I tend to ask when we will come up with a vac­cine. I am rea­son­ably op­ti­mistic that science will come up with a vac­cine, which is what so­ci­eties need at this mo­ment to help them open up again. The is­sue is when. At the mo­ment, many phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals com­pa­nies – ours among them – are ac­tively try­ing to cre­ate a vac­cine.

I hope they all are suc­cess­ful be­cause doc­tors will need to have choices and the needed quan­ti­ties will be such that no sin­gle com­pany, no mat­ter how big, and this in­cludes Pfizer, will be able to cover them. We are con­tin­u­ally mon­i­tor­ing data, be­cause re­search is be­ing done in co­op­er­a­tion with the [US] Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA) and the Euro­pean drug ap­proval au­thor­i­ties. If things con­tinue to go well, and bar­ring a nasty sur­prise, we can have a vac­cine by Oc­to­ber about whose safety and ef­fi­cacy not only us but all drug-ap­prov­ing au­thor­i­ties around the world are con­vinced. We must also have pre­pared mil­lions of doses of the vac­cine to be used im­me­di­ately. To achieve all this, you must do things very dif­fer­ently than in the con­ven­tional way of de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine; that is go­ing through all the de­vel­op­ment phases si­mul­ta­ne­ously rather than se­quen­tially. Which means that, if you fail some­where, the whole en­ter­prise col­lapses and you have spent your money and your sci­en­tific re­sources in vain. But this is the only way if you must achieve some­thing fast. And one of the big­gest risks we are un­der­tak­ing is that we will start pro­duc­ing the vac­cines with­out know­ing if they work. If we are lucky, and hu­man­ity is lucky, and the vac­cine works, we will have the doses when they are needed, most likely when fall and win­ter come around again [in 2021]. If not, we will de­stroy the quan­ti­ties pro­duced.

Pfizer alone has a bud­get of $2 bil­lion for a vac­cine and an­tivi­ral drugs, with the lion’s share to be spent on the vac­cine. And spend­ing will be front­loaded, that is we must ini­tially spend at least $1 bil­lion this year.

At this mo­ment, the FDA, the Euro­pean and Ja­panese au­thor­i­ties and, in gen­eral, any author­ity that must give ap­proval for a vac­cine that will be used on its cit­i­zens, are fol­low­ing stud­ies closely and have set up qual­ity stan­dards. In our case, and I be­lieve this is true of all big phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals ac­tively in­volved, con­cern about the safety and suc­cess of the vac­cine is a given, ir­re­spec­tive of what the FDA wants. I know there is a thin line about what “safe enough” means. First of all, “safe enough” is the wrong term. It must be to­tally safe.

Both ex­cel­lent ques­tions. First, about the cit­i­zens of the so-called ad­vanced world – such as North Amer­ica, the EU, Ja­pan, Korea, Aus­tralia – where there are well-es­tab­lished health sys­tems, al­most al­ways, and this is most likely to hap­pen with the Covid-19 vac­cine, cit­i­zens won’t have to pay any­thing. The vac­cine will be avail­able for free. The na­tional health sys­tems will pay the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. At the mo­ment very few coun­tries are con­cerned about the cost of the vac­cine. Na­tional bud­gets are be­ing harmed to such an ex­tent that spend­ing to ac­quire a vac­cine would be no ob­ject. In say­ing this, I am aware, on my part, that I can­not ap­ply mar­ket prin­ci­ples in this case. I can­not say I will charge, let’s say, the US, or the Ger­man, or the Greek gov­ern­ment on the ba­sis of the vac­cine’s value, be­cause we would have to charge really high prices and this would be wrong. Re­gard­less of value, if we come up with a vac­cine, we plan to sell it at a price com­pa­ra­ble to all our other vac­cines, for which there is no com­pa­ra­ble de­mand. But the im­por­tant thing right now is to come up with a vac­cine. Also, I would like to men­tion what will hap­pen with the other coun­tries. African coun­tries, or some Latin Amer­i­can ones, may be of very lit­tle com­mer­cial value to us but this is a pub­lic health and hu­man rights is­sue and, of course, they have equal rights. We shouldn’t de­prive coun­tries of vac­cines their gov­ern­ments are un­able to pay for, es­pe­cially at a time where I know de­mand will out­strip sup­ply. For this rea­son, we are work­ing hard to come up with an eq­ui­table way to make the vac­cine avail­able to coun­tries with­out the fi­nan­cial means to buy it. For those coun­tries, any hur­dles will be in in­fra­struc­ture, not fi­nan­cial. For ex­am­ple, the vac­cine we are work­ing on, es­pe­cially the first gen­er­a­tion of the vac­cine, will need to be trans­ported at a tem­per­a­ture of -80 de­grees Cel­sius (-112 F). You need a cer­tain spe­cial­ized in­fra­struc­ture to do this. Very few African coun­tries have such an in­fra­struc­ture. We are cur­rently work­ing in­ten­sively with Bill Gates, the fa­mous phi­lan­thropist and Mi­crosoft founder, who has an ex­cel­lent track record of ac­tions in th­ese coun­tries, on how to re­solve such in­fra­struc­ture is­sues so that they can get their fair share.

Our aim is to pro­vide the vac­cine si­mul­ta­ne­ously to Europe and the US, when it be­comes avail­able. There could be a dif­fer­ence of a week or two, but this would be due to lo­gis­tics and not to pol­i­tics or any other rea­son. But, be­cause in times of cri­sis, the US gov­ern­ment wants the vac­cine for it­self, Europe does too and also within Europe, north­ern Euro­pean gov­ern­ments want it for them­selves and south­ern Euro­peans also, we must find a way for an eq­ui­table dis­tri­bu­tion. Know­ing the is­sues be­tween the US and Europe, I set up two sep­a­rate pro­duc­tion lines, one for Europe and one for the US, in or­der to avoid such an is­sue. But within Europe we have to find an eq­ui­table so­lu­tion for ev­ery­one and, of course, Greece. Beloved Greece.

‘I was born, grew up, stud­ied, fell in love and got mar­ried in Thes­sa­loniki. Thes­sa­loniki was and re­mains the epi­cen­ter of my life’

Ex­cel­lent. We Greeks abroad of­ten are more Greek than you. Not just be­cause we have cher­ished mem­o­ries of our beaches and our ouzo, but be­cause we are sur­rounded by non-Greeks who will not shy from crit­i­ciz­ing Greece’s faults, and this makes us mad and makes us love the coun­try even more. But truth be told, we have not of­ten had the chance to use our coun­try as an ex­am­ple to be im­i­tated. The way Greece dealt with the coro­n­avirus and the way it is emerg­ing as one of the most suc­cess­ful coun­tries in deal­ing with it, has made us ex­tremely proud. And this suc­cess is widely dis­cussed glob­ally, not just among Greeks. The in­ter­na­tional press con­tin­u­ally writes about how well Greece did. Huge pride.

In this file photo, Al­bert Bourla is seen at his old Pfizer of­fice in Athens.

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