Albert Bourla is the CEO of Pfizer.
It started with a moonshot challenge
On March 19, 2020, as Covid-19 swept across the world, I challenged everyone at Pfizer to "make the impossible possible." The challenge was to develop a vaccine more quickly than anyone ever had before, ideally within six months and certainly before the end of the year. Ugur Sahin, the CEO of our partner BioNTech — a German company focused on cancer immunotherapies — did the same with his team.
Less than eight months later, on November 8, a few senior executives and I gathered to hear whether our researchers, scientists, clinical trial organisers, manufacturers and logistics experts had collectively accomplished that goal. Four independent data monitors were meeting remotely to review the preliminary results of the vaccine candidate trial our two companies were running. After finding an efficacy rate of 95.6 per cent, the independent committee "highly" recommended that we seek approval for use.
It took a moonshot challenge, out-of-the-box thinking, intercompany cooperation, liberation from bureaucracy and, most of all, hard work from everyone at Pfizer and BioNTech to accomplish what we did in 2020. Organizations of any size — or in any industry — can use these strategies to solve their own problems and to produce important work that benefits society.
A patient-first mentality
During my 27 years with Pfizer, my family and I have lived in eight cities and five countries. My exposure to so many cultures, my background as a scientist and the diversity of roles I had taken on across Pfizer helped prepare me for my new responsibilities, as did my Jewish upbringing in Greece. Coming from a country that's a small player on the world stage and being a religious minority taught me to fight for what I believe is right and never to give up.
When I became CEO of Pfizer, I wanted to build on the company's success by concentrating on science and patients. We would need to focus on all stakeholders, not just shareholders, to create long-term value. To that end, we strengthened the leadership team and added four board members with either significant scientific backgrounds or global business expertise.
The pandemic strikes
Covid-19 first came onto our radar screen in January 2020, when we began hearing reports of severe respiratory illness and deaths in Wuhan, China. As a company deeply invested in infectious disease and vaccine research, we paid close attention. By February, it was clear that this virus would spread to many parts of the world, and we knew Pfizer would have to play a pivotal role in stopping it.
We had already been working with BioNTech to apply its primary technology, messenger RNA, or mRNA, to flu vaccines. Traditionally, making a vaccine starts with growing weakened forms of the virus, which can take months. But mRNA vaccines are created synthetically, using just the pathogen's genetic code, which can be done much more quickly. We initiated a collaboration with BioNTech to test further how mRNA could be applied to a Covid-19 vaccine.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. On March 16, our top executives agreed that it was time to go all-in on developing this vaccine with BioNTech — along with treatments for Covid-19 — even if that meant spending as much as US$3 billion.
I pushed to have a vaccine ready by the fall when cases were expected to spike again. Everyone knew it would be an enormous, perhaps unattainable, task, but we all knew it was one we were obligated to take on.
The work begins
Time was of the essence. Pfizer signed a letter of intent with BioNTech. We decided to work on several vaccine candidates in parallel instead of testing the most promising ones in sequence, as was usual. This was financially risky but, again, would generate results more quickly. We also declined government funding, to liberate our scientists from bureaucracy and protect them from unnecessary slowdowns.
Early results were promising, and we saw that each candidate would require two injections, three weeks apart, but we couldn't immediately tell which was the best bet. Finally, on July 23, we learned that although both seemed to generate a strong immune response, one produced considerably fewer side effects.
Though our scientists and manufacturing teams were working harder than ever to meet the accelerated timetable, and we all faced immense political and personal pressure, we remained clear about one thing: We would move only as fast as the science allowed.
By November, only 94 of the 43,538 people to whom we had administered the vaccine candidate or a placebo had become sick, which triggered the independent review that brought us such good news on November 8. Nearly every person who had come down with Covid-19 was in the placebo group. Those in the vaccine group had been almost completely protected, despite the likelihood that they had also been exposed. Once the data had been presented to regulatory agencies and the vaccine was authorized, the rollout could finally begin.
The UK was the first country to authorize the use of our vaccine, and Margaret Keenan got the first dose, on December 8, 2020. There have been hiccups — including challenges in securing raw materials — but we produced 74 million doses and released more than 45 million by the end of 2020, and we are on track to produce more than 2 billion in 2021.
In the insane year that was 2020, we learned that:
• It can pay to put purpose first.
• Moonshot challenges that align with the right purpose are galvanising.
• When you set a huge goal, you must encourage the out-of-the-box thinking required to achieve it.
• We need to embrace cooperation — especially in a crisis.
A bright future
The pandemic was the ultimate test of the pharmaceutical industry's credibility and relevance, and in my view, the industry passed with flying colours. Dozens of companies have developed effective treatments and vaccines, and more are on the way. We're now working together to prepare for the next virus or disease.
Throughout my career at Pfizer, I've seen our people do extraordinary things when motivated. None of us know what we're capable of until confronted with the most challenging tasks. Our work in 2020 was just the latest and greatest example. So the next time a colleague says that something is impossible, I expect his or her peers to say, "Look at what the Covid-19 vaccine group accomplished. If they could do that, we can do this."
Written by: Albert Bourla
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