The Conversation ALBERT BOURLA
Fortune India|March 2021
As the pandemic took hold last spring, scientists at Pfizer set out to, in the words of CEO Albert Bourla, “make the impossible possible”. Now, on the heels of achieving just that—developing the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine with breakneck speed—the leader of the 172-year-old drugmaker talks about the clash of science and politics, drug prices, and his next impossible task.
CLIFTON LEAF

“This is why I was put in this position: to be able to take the right risk… not to be conservative and not move when the world needs us.”

GOING ALL IN ON SCIENCE

In early March 2020, barely a year into your role as CEO, you made a near-instant decision to put some $2 billion of Pfizer’s money at risk to develop a Coronavirus vaccine. What drove you to make that giant wager?

BOURLA: It was a massive bet, but it was a very necessary one. There are not many companies that have the kind of end-to-end capabilities in vaccines that Pfizer has—ones that can start from early research and go all the way into not only manufacturing but also distribution, which is challenging. So the question in my mind was, “If not us, then who?”

There is a slew of proven ways for constructing vaccines, but you chose to go with mRNA 1, a technology that had never before produced an approved vaccine. Why?

I knew that we were working with mRNA in flu [through our partnership with German firm BioNTech]. We had adenoviruses that we continue to work with in making vaccines for other diseases. We had recombinant proteins, you name it. But my team [led by the head of vaccine research Kathrin Jansen] went through each technology and said our recommendation is to go with mRNA, which could be scaled up very quickly once it was developed. It’s true that there had been no vaccine made before with mRNA technology—but if we are successful, then ours would be the first.

My team wanted to get started very fast. And BioNtech [CEO Ugur Sahin, who had reached out to Jansen in a March 1 phone call] also said they wanted to do it very fast. So we started investing, and they started sharing their data with us—without even a contract.

The need for speed was one reason to go with an mRNA vaccine. Another benefit is that you can change the genetic recipe for the vaccine on the fly—something that may be necessary as the virus continues to mutate and more variants emerge.

Exactly. Speed was of the essence and flexibility was of the essence. This was exactly the reason why we’ve chosen this for flu. 3 Flu has the same characteristics. Every year is a different flu. So every year the vaccines that we’re getting for flu are different from the year before. [With other technologies] each takes months to develop. The RNA vaccines could disrupt that because you can do in weeks what you’d need months to do in the other cases.

Your day job, of course, is to find solutions at Pfizer, where you’ve been trying to jump-start growth. You’ve projected annual revenue growth will reach 6% soon. That’s well above where the company has been for the last couple of years 2. Are you still confident in that trajectory?

I’m very confident now. And also, I want to say the projection is for “at least 6%” revenue growth. The 6% is not the ceiling, it’s the floor. And I’m very confident—excluding anything coming from the COVID-19 vaccine—that the remaining segments of the business will deliver these numbers. And to that, we need to add whatever the final impact of the COVID vaccine will be. We haven’t released any projections for that—though I believe on revenues, we will be higher than $3 billion.

The current Coronavirus variants that have emerged are causing alarm. How effective is Pfizer’s vaccine against these mutant strains?

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