Pfizer CEO explains the decision to go with mRNA: “mRNA was a technology that never delivered a single product until that day… It was most counterintuitive to go the mRNA route,” Albert Bourla says
It’s been over two years since the pandemic started and billions of mRNA vaccines have been administered to people around the world. At the time, the mRNA vaccine was considered a game-changer in medicine with the potential to cure covid.
But looking at the rearview mirror, it’s now obvious that the “mRNA vaccine doesn’t stop infection or transmission,” an assertion that was once called misinformation or fake news two years ago. It was the same statement that got former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson banned from Twitter before he was later reinstated after he took Twitter to court.
In a pinned post on Twitter, Berenson said this about the mRNA vaccine:
“It doesn’t stop infection. Or transmission. Don’t think of it as a vaccine. Think of it – at best – as a therapeutic with a limited window of efficacy and terrible side effect profile that must be dosed IN ADVANCE OF ILLNESS. And we want to mandate it? Insanity.”
It doesn’t stop infection.
Don’t think of it as a vaccine.
Think of it – at best – as a therapeutic with a limited window of efficacy and terrible side effect profile that must be dosed IN ADVANCE OF ILLNESS.
And we want to mandate it?
— Alex Berenson (@AlexBerenson) July 6, 2022
But as people try to move on with their lives and put the pandemic behind them, a 5-month-old video of Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla is now making rounds on the Internet that suggests he may be backpedaling from the company’s decision to go with mRNA technology.
In March, Bourla told The Washington Post in an interview that he had serious doubts about mRNA products, but everyone appeared very certain. During the interview, Bourla said that before the pandemic, “MRNA was a technology that never delivered a single product.”
“It was counterintuitive because Pfizer was mastering or let’s say we had very good experience and expertise with multiple technologies that could give a vaccine…mRNA was the technology that we had less experience with, only two years working on this. And actually, MRNA was a technology that never delivered a single product until that day. Not vaccine, not any other medicine, so it was very counterintuitive.”
When asked by Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post, why the company still decided to with the mRNA technology instead of the proven and traditional vaccine technology, Bourla replied:
“It was counterintuitive because Pfizer was mustering on the table, had very good experience and expertise with multiple technologies that could give a vaccine, and the Novartis that some of the vaccines are, we were very good in doing that. Protein vaccines, we were very good in doing that and plus many other technologies.”
Below is the video and the entire interview transcript.
“MR. CAPEHART: Good afternoon. I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Welcome to this Washington Post Live subscriber exclusive interview with the chairman and CEO of Pfizer, Dr. Albert Bourla.
Dr. Bourla, welcome to Washington Post Live.
DR. BOURLA: Thank you, Jonathan. Thank you for having us.
MR. CAPEHART: Sure. It’s like the battle of the bookcases here, Dr. Bourla, we have in our backgrounds, but again, thank you very much for being here.
In your new book, “Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine‑Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible,” you detail the journey that led to Pfizer being the first pharmaceutical company to get a COVID‑19 vaccine approved in the United States. Part of how you were able‑‑excuse me‑‑to pull this off was by tweaking the phrase “time is money” to “time is life.” How do you think that inspired your team?
DR. BOURLA: I think to a very great extent. Keep in mind that all these events are happening in a period that everybody is scared. The world looks like it’s moving to a big catastrophe. People cannot connect with each other. Grandparents cannot see the grandkids. People are dying alone in hospitals, things that we never imagined before.
So, when you have a cause like that, you can‑‑it’s not that difficult to rally people behind, and when I use the phrase “time is life,” which is a phrase that we were using a lot in Pfizer, particularly with our clinical development group, it resonated and rallied people behind.
MR. CAPEHART: Another thing you did‑‑and this, I believe, was pre‑pandemic‑‑in your‑‑and I can’t remember the name of the room offhand, but the room where you meet, you have your meetings with your senior team, and you had people put up pictures of people who were important to them. Talk about that.
DR. BOURLA: Yeah. The room is called Purpose Circle.
MR. CAPEHART: Purpose Circle. That’s right.
DR. BOURLA: And‑‑yes, yes. And it was the previous room‑‑we made the room, but we removed the table, the meeting room table, and we arranged armchairs in a circle. And this is where the leadership team was meeting and all the way until the pandemic, and most of the decisions were made there.
And on the‑‑we call it “Purpose Circle” because our purpose is breakthroughs that’s saving patients’ lives, and we meant to say that all the decisions that we are making over there means to make sure that they’re serving this purpose, but we are bringing breakthroughs and saving patients’ lives, but to make sure that we also remember even better, on one side of the wall was very big letters, our purpose. On the other side of the wall, every member or our leadership team put a picture of a patient that is very close to in their heart. Some put their mother that has some issues. Some people, a [unclear] of a neighbor that had cancer. I put my daughter, for example. Everyone had a picture up there.
So every time that we were making difficult decisions, we just had to look there and know what is the right answer. If it is good for patients, let’s do it.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, you wrote in the preface of the book, quote, “Luck never comes to the unprepared.” So how was Pfizer prepared for the possibility of a global pandemic, even before COVID‑19 existed? This was a fascinating thing you wrote about in your book.
DR. BOURLA: Well, we were trying to transform the company for more of a conglomerate of multiple businesses into a singularly focused‑on‑science business. To do that, we changed the portfolio. We divested businesses that were very successful but were not science‑based. We dramatically changed the capital allocation of the company. We put draconian measures in reducing our administrative costs, but we increased dramatically the expenses in diseases or in research.
Before ’19, we were spending approximately $7 billion per year in research. That’s a very big number, but if you compare it with what we spent in 2021, close to $11 billion, it’s a huge difference. And so digital and research made a very big difference.
But, as I’m sure your audience and you know better, you can’t change a company by just changing the portfolio of businesses or the capital allocations. The fundamental change needs to be the change of the culture, and this is when the purpose that we discussed five minutes ago came into play. We articulated what is the reason of our existence in this very simple work, breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, meaning that everything we need to do needs to be significant science, not incremental help, not incremental improvements compared to the current standards of care, but the breakthrough improvements to the degree that would change the life of the people that are benefitting.
And we started thinking what should be the culture of a company that will be successful in accomplishing a mission like that, a purpose like that, and again, with four simple words that we’re somehow different than what used to be the words of values in corporate America.
The first one was courage. You need to be courageous, and clearly everything we did during the COVID required a lot of courage to be able to embark and do something that was seemingly impossible.
It was excellence, and clearly, the way that we were able to execute our clinical programs was because we had defined excellence and what it means. It means that to focus on what matters, to measure outcomes, et cetera.
Equity was the third value, and the equity is what drove us to make sure that we resist the temptation to use that as a significant opportunity for moneymaking and use equity as a fundamental principle on how the vaccine would be distributed and how the studies would be conducted. All our studies, we placed significant emphasis to make sure that they are very diverse in terms of the population that we are recruiting.
And then from day one, we set a tier pricing, simple price for the high‑income countries but half the price for the middle‑income countries and at cost for the low‑income countries, and then we start getting through the help of the U.S. government even free, those countries.
And joy. And joy coming from the satisfaction that one can get in this company because of the good that we are making to humanity.
All of these things, including importantly the change in culture, I think what prepared us. So, when the time came to test all of that in practice, we were ready, and we were lucky to be successful.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, the joy piece, I’m going to go on, take a little detour here. You write about how you didn’t cause a whole lot of joy with a lot of your colleagues through this, through getting the vaccine made to the point where, in your own performance review from your own employees, they sort of let you know that you did not bring much joy to them. Talk about the lesson you learned from that interaction right there.
DR. BOURLA: Oh, yes. Just a little bit of context. When we established those four values, we took it very seriously. So every six months, everyone in this company‑‑everyone in this company, it is assessed by others how he or she believes and performs on these values. Do you have courage? Do you bring joy in the environment that we operate, et cetera, et cetera?
So everybody is judged by two sets of groups, one, the people that are reporting, so his people or her people, and the peers, the people that they are in the same group with them. I only have employees. I don’t have peers because I’m the only one in the company that I am just single. I’m the boss.
So my scores were very, very high before that day and before COVID. The first time that I‑‑actually, when I say very high, they were the highest levels in the company, and when I saw my scores after the first‑‑the end of 2020, I realized that my scores on joy just plummeted, went down, and I‑‑that also rang a bell to me that something‑‑I need to be way more careful.
So what happened? Clearly, I was putting a lot of pressure on people, but I don’t think that people ranked me low because of the pressure I was putting on them because they knew that this pressure was needed, and we were only successful because of the pressure that we had on ourselves and on everybody working on this project.
But I was also unnecessarily unpleasant in many cases because I’m human being, and the pressure was on my shoulders very heavy. It was not the pressure. So just running a company as before, I was very good in handing something like that. It was the pressure of billions of people that they are investing all their hopes on you, and I think that if you are not successful, what will be for the world? And I lost it in several occasions, and I could yell at people and I could be cynical on people, and I will express my frustration because they tried to do their best, but they were not successful. That, I regret. I regret a lot that I did that and didn’t help at all, but the pressure helped.
MR. CAPEHART: Right. The pressure helped, and you do apologize to people again in the book.
But I want for people to understand the pressure that the company was under but the pressure you put the employees under, just so that folks understand. You write, “I didn’t ask people to do what they were doing in eight years. I asked them to do it in eight months. I didn’t ask them to make 300 million doses. I asked them to make 3 billion doses, and I insisted that these targets were not negotiable. It was clear from the beginning that incremental improvements would not make the cut. They needed to completely rethink their processes.”
And I read that because I want to get a little into the weeds here and the mRNA technology. When you and your colleagues were trying to decide which route to go down, the traditional vaccine route or the mRNA route, you write that it was, quote, “most counterintuitive to go the mRNA route,” and yet you went that route. Explain why.
DR. BOURLA: It was counterintuitive because Pfizer was mustering on the table, had very good experience and expertise with multiple technologies that could give a vaccine, and the Novartis that some of the vaccines are, we were very good in doing that. Protein vaccines, we were very good in doing that and plus many other technologies.
mRNA was a technology, but we had less experience, only two years working on this, and actually, mRNA was a technology that never delivered a single product until that day, not vaccine, not any other medicine. So it was very counterintuitive, and I was surprised when they suggested to me that this is the way to go, and I questioned it. And I asked them to justify how can you say something like that, but they came, and they were very, very convinced that this is the right way to go.
They felt that the two years of work on mRNA since 2018 together with BioNTech to develop the flu vaccine made them believe that the technology is mature and we are at the cusp of delivering a product.
So they convinced me. I followed my instinct that they know what they are saying. They are very good, and we made this very difficult decision at that time.
MR. CAPEHART: And is it‑‑the thing about mRNA is that because it’s synthetic, it reduces the amount of time? It makes it a lot easier to readjust, reedit, refit to whatever virus you’re trying to make a vaccine for or trying to address?
DR. BOURLA: You’re absolutely right. This is one of the many benefits that the technology brings. So the reason why they were suggesting something that was more risky clearly than the others was because of the many benefits if we were successful. We analyzed very well and knew that we are in a pandemic. And it is eventually possible that we will now see many new variants coming up. So we wanted to have a technology that if there is a need to adopt to the vaccine, we’ll be able to do it very quickly, and mRNA can do in weeks what other technologies require months.
And the second thing is that we wanted to be able to use a technology that will not limit abilities to boost immune responses with additional injections if there is a need, and mRNA is very good in that. Unlike, for example, adenoviruses, there are issues when you try to do a second or third dose. That creates issues.
So, for this and many other reasons, we selected to go with something that was clearly more risky, but if we were successful, it looked like it has all the features that are required to fight a pandemic in an expedient manner and in a mass scale.
MR. CAPEHART: You caught me cheating. I was looking for another quote in the book, but let’s go to the start of 2020. COVID‑19 was spreading quickly around the globe leading to unprecedented upheavals, shutdowns, quarantines, but then on December 8th of that year, so less than a year, 90‑year‑old Margaret Keenan received the first dose of the COVID‑19 vaccine in England. That’s 269 days after the development of the vaccine began. How did that moment feel for you to see all that pressure and all that pushing come to fruition?
DR. BOURLA: Very difficult to describe the emotions that I felt. It was very strong, the emotions, when I understood, when I learned the results of our study. It was very strong, the emotions, when I saw the first truck going out of our manufacturer site, but nothing is compared with this picture in the video of this lady receiving the vaccine, and then as she’s driven out of the room in the hospital corridor in a wheelchair, left and right, there were people giving her a standing ovation. She was a hero just because she was the first one to receive the vaccine, and the same day in UK, because that’s where the first dose was administered, people were celebrating on the streets like it was the end of the war, reminding the signs of what we had seen when the Second World War ended, not the launch of another vaccine.
These emotions for me were very, very, very strong because this is where I realized that the impact that we are having is real.
MR. CAPEHART: So let’s talk more about the vaccine, Dr. Bourla. Now that we’ve got the vaccine, I got the vaccine, I got boosted, and so I and‑‑I got the two shots of the vaccine, and I got boosted. So I got three shots, three shots. So now people are wondering, are they going to have to get a fourth shot? Will we need a fourth shot of another booster to keep our immunity up?
DR. BOURLA: I think we will. I think we will, and we‑‑the reasons for that is the omicron, really. I felt and I had expressed that conviction that with a third shot, we should be able to get immune protection that will last for a year, and then we should be able to move to annual revaccinations, which is the ultimate goal.
But omicron changed this equation, and omicron among all the variants that we have seen so far‑‑and there were a lot. Omicron is, I think, the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet‑‑is the first and only that was able to create‑‑to challenge significantly the protection that a vaccine is offering to people, and this is why we needed the third dose. And the third dose was able‑‑the two doses was very poor protecting against omicron, but the three doses were protecting very well against hospitalizations and death, not as well against the infections, but also went quite rapidly. It doesn’t last long, and likely, we will need a fourth dose.
And we are working right now very intensively. There are, of course, four doses of the current vaccine, and I think our data suggests that they are protecting‑‑they are improving dramatically the protection, the fourth dose compared to the third for omicron after some time, after, let’s say, three to six months.
But we are working on next‑generation vaccines right now. We are generating a lot, a lot of data from many gene code status that we are testing very advanced, good science, I would say, that would allow us from one hand, a vaccine that covers all the variants, all the new.
Secondly, to create a vaccine that will last longer, a vaccine that could last a year, because I think this is what really the world needs. After two years of do we need a third or fourth or fifth dose, people are getting tired, and as you said, this is the‑‑the question that you asked me is in the lips and in the mind of everyone. And I know that if we have to go to less than year, let’s say every six months or every four months vaccinations, many people will not follow the instructions, and that will have severe consequences. So we must develop a vaccine that lasts a year.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. So then how far are we from seeing this new‑‑this new vaccine you’re talking about that will last a year?
DR. BOURLA: We are working very intensively. I can’t say now with good conviction when that will be ready and if that will be ready, for example, for this year or next year, but we are working very intensively. And I’m not certain that we will be successful with having this way longer duration of new protection vaccine, but what I know, it is that our scientific hypothesis and our scientific strings that we are pulling right now are really, really very strong.
So I am hopeful that we will be able to produce and prove that it works, something, and not in the very long distance.
MR. CAPEHART: So then, Dr. Bourla, in the meantime, for those of us who have gotten the two shots and boosted and wondering to‑‑whether we should get a fourth shot, another booster, when would you recommend that we get that fourth shot?
DR. BOURLA: My job as someone who runs a company is to make sure that you have all the resources and the scientific expertise to make sure that we generate data, and then it is the job of FDA, of CDC to recommend to the American people. And we can only speak about recommendations or not after they have made theirs.
So I promise that very soon, we will submit data to the FDA so that they themselves will see, evaluate, and then CDC do the same, and they are the ones that should recommend even when a fourth dose is required.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. Do they come to you and ask you what you think in terms of getting advice on when they should recommend a fourth dose, and if so, have they reached out to you?
DR. BOURLA: Of course. I believe that we need. I don’t‑‑I’m‑‑not they want to recommend to the public, but I am the one to express my opinion and say I think we need. But the only way for something like that to become a recommendation, it is to back this belief with data, and I believe it because I have seen data. And those data needs to be analyzed, reviewed, scrutinized by the people that should do that, and this is FDA and CDC. They are in very close contact with us.
And allow me to say that we are all serving the same purpose. We want the best for the health of Americans and for the health of the world, and I don’t think even that we have disagreements. I think, pretty much, we are aligned on everything so far.
MR. CAPEHART: Mm‑hmm. And so do you think that they will be making‑‑making that recommendation to the public shortly?
DR. BOURLA: I think that once they receive data from us, they will take the time that they think is appropriate, that they need to scrutinize this data, but from everything I have seen so far, both CDC and FDA, they are moving with an incredible sense of urgency. So regardless of if the decision will be positive or negative, I think they will make it quickly.
MR. CAPEHART: Mm‑hmm. All right. And I just want to be clear. The data, Pfizer data, has been delivered to the FDA and the CDC. They have your data, and now you’re just waiting for them to analyze it, scrutinize it, and make the recommendation?
DR. BOURLA: They haven’t been delivered yet, but they will be delivered soon. But we always keep them appraised about what they could expect to see. We never surprise them. This is happening in real time, both U.S. government, all the agencies, and the same is with Europe. The same is with Japan. They want to understand how things are moving because they need to prepare themselves. So they know, more or less, how and what our data are, but we haven’t submitted it yet officially because we haven’t finalized all the very detailed reporting that needs to be completed. So we will do that soon.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. Let’s talk about the vaccine for children. Right now, vaccines are not available for children under five. What’s led to the delay in getting that vaccine? Are there problems with the clinical trials? Does the mRNA not work? Can you give an explanation?
DR. BOURLA: No, absolutely. I think what happened in the difference of projected days is omicron. When we started the studies, we felt very comfortable that a two‑dose scheme will be very effective, and then we will see even when the third needs to be given. And I think we were right when it comes to delta, but then, suddenly, the disease changed, and we had omicron. So now we felt that the two doses of the vaccine would do for omicron the same as two doses did for adults, which was not good protection. You needed a third one, and we immediately followed up on our study to see, indeed, what will happen with a third.
Now, the reason our plans were to submit on the second does and then later come with a third, and in fact, for a period of time, FDA knowing that omicron creates significant problems to kids‑‑actually, omicron was mild as a disease for adults, but it created way more cases, pediatric cases, than the previous variants. And FDA, ourselves, and CDC, we were receiving a lot of requests from pediatricians that they were‑‑they wanted urgently something to have in their toolbox, and then we were discussing maybe we submit the two‑dose data before the third so that they can start the review process.
But, again, because transparency is so important and we don’t want to submit something that wouldn’t look very good because we knew that two doses would not look that good as they don’t look in adults, and three doses should look very good as they look in adult. This is why we decided to wait until the third dose.
MR. CAPEHART: So, last week, New York State officials found the effectiveness of Pfizer’s vaccine against COVID infection plummeted from 68 percent to 12 percent for children aged 5 to 11 during the omicron surge. What is the biggest challenge you’re facing with the vaccine, particularly when it comes to its effectiveness with children?
DR. BOURLA: Yes. Let me clarify something. The numbers that were quoted was numbers against the infection, not severe disease, not hospitalization or deaths. The numbers against hospitalization and deaths are way, way higher, but also, it is what I told you. Two doses, they do not work well against omicron, and you need the third dose. And this is what we are expecting to bring, hopefully, next month.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. All right.
DR. BOURLA: We are moving fast. We are moving fast.
MR. CAPEHART: Right, right.
DR. BOURLA: We know, as you said in the beginning, time is life.
MR. CAPEHART: Time is life, and you’ve been moving fast and for‑‑since 2020.
You said previously that Pfizer was manufacturing at its own risk an omicron‑specific booster. Are you still, or are you waiting for another variant? What’s your development and manufacturing plan for this?
DR. BOURLA: We are testing right now a new vaccine, and this new vaccine is designed to protect not against omicron. It’s to protect against all variants, including omicron. That’s very important to point out. So we want to have at least the same very good results against the other variants that the previous vaccine had and way better results against omicron than the previous vaccine had, so altogether.
And as we did when things were unknown, if the current vaccine will work or not, we started manufacturing at risk. If it doesn’t work, we will throw it away, but if it does work, then we will be ahead in terms of being able to manufacture it.
MR. CAPEHART: Let’s talk about the oral antiviral. The rollout has been slow because you’ve said it’s very difficult to manufacture. Have you found ways to accelerate it? Do you have any numbers you can share with us?
DR. BOURLA: In terms of omicron, you mean?
MR. CAPEHART: The oral antiviral which‑‑
DR. BOURLA: Oh, of course. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. First of all, let me clarify, given that I said the omicron, but the oral antiviral is not affected at all from omicron, unlike what happens with a vaccine. But it‑‑omicron is more challenging to control with a vaccine. That’s why we need more doses, and then we need to make a better vaccine.
The current antiviral is working very, very, very well against omicron. We are moving very fast, and we are on track exact, yes. We have very transparent to promise the world. We said that we will have 6 million doses‑‑treatments, not doses‑‑treatments. Every treatment is 30 doses, 30 pills‑‑by the end of the first quarter, and the end of this month, we will have 6 million, exponentially more by the end of the second quarter. We will have 24 additional, so 30 in total and then very big quantities after that. We are going to have 120 million treatments by the end of the year. So things are moving fast.
MR. CAPEHART: I’m going to get to audience questions in a moment, but we’re talking about the vaccine. But we have gone through and we’re still going through in this country a huge debate over people who don’t want to take the vaccine, who are resisting taking the vaccine. You wrote in your book early on‑‑you wrote, “What if we had accomplished these breakthroughs only to discover that the public would refuse to shop for a lack of trust in the industry, the company, or the science itself?” You said that in an interview with CBS “Sunday Morning” that, to a very high degree, this is what happened. So what do you think‑‑why do you think there’s so much distrust for the COVID‑19 vaccines?
DR. BOURLA: Yes. First, let’s put things into perspective. The vast majority of people, they believed in science, and they took the vaccine. And the numbers, how many they believed and how many didn’t believe, they varied country by country.
In this country, I know that the approximately 70 percent of the eligible received the vaccine, and‑‑but‑‑so the minority didn’t, but this is a very sizeable minority. Frankly, it’s higher than what I was thinking and hoping, but it will be there are more people that are skeptical.
Those people are people that typically very good people. Typically, they care about others and themselves. They’re afraid that this vaccine is not safe, is not effective. They’re afraid. Some people, they are afraid about the needles. Some people are afraid about something new in their body, but the fear is the main driver for something like that.
Now, the fear, unfortunately, was cultivated also by an unfortunate political debate. The COVID and the way that we deal with that was severely politicized. It became a political statement if you are going to wear a mask or not. If you were good, from one side, you should wear masks, and if you were a good‑‑I would say follower of the other side, you shouldn’t wear a mask. Nonsense. You should wear a mask based on what the scientists are saying is good for the protection of the public health. The same was with vaccines. The same was with treatments, with everything. So that’s a problem.
The other thing that also contributed to that, it is that it became a good ground for misinformation. Fear is always a good ground for misinformation, and many very small, small amount of people, but many still, they spread this misinformation, and they make it this way of living or of profiting. And that also created a lot of issues.
If you see the levels of people that they do not‑‑I mean the percentage of people that they are hesitating to take the vaccine, this number is way higher in low‑income countries than it is in high‑income countries, and the reason is because in high‑income countries, way bigger part of the population is educated. So it’s very difficult to be sold in conspiracy theories and misinformation, and unfortunately, in lower‑income countries, a very big part of the populations are not well educated, and they are the first to believe this story. So it’s unfortunate, and it has cost lives.
But, you know, by just pressing those people to change their mind, it won’t work, I think, anymore. They are afraid, and the more you press them to do something that they’re afraid, the more they will become resistant and aggressive. And it is what it is.
So that’s why I think treatments are extremely important because despite the fact that we have very good vaccines and we will bring even better, people will get COVID for the years to come. So we need to have something for those, either because they neglected to protect themselves or because they were unlikely, although they did the vaccine, they caught the virus. They need to have treatments available.
MR. CAPEHART: Mm‑hmm. So, Dr. Bourla, we have a lot of questions, audience questions that we have here, and so we’re going to spend the rest of this time trying to get through them, and this one from Stacy Baker here in Washington, D.C., gets at a question I was going to ask you. But since she’s got it here, I’ll just ask it.
DR. BOURLA: Yes.
MR. CAPEHART: She asks, “How did Operation Warp Speed affect vaccine development at Pfizer?”
DR. BOURLA: I think the effort and the concept that the government would create a group that would help the industry bring across the line, it was a successful treatment of vaccine. It was a very, very good concept, and I think it was the right thing to do.
Pfizer didn’t choose to take the money of the government for reasons that I’ve explained multiple times. First of all, we didn’t need the money of the government. We could do it on our own dime.
Now, that was not the reason not to take money, because you can do it still. I have a fiduciary responsibility for the shareholders, but I’ve chosen not to take the money because I know that when someone gives you money, it never comes without strings attached. So they would, at a minimum, want to be part of all the meetings that they are making significant decisions. Are we going to run a study this way or that way? Are we going to choose Candidate A or Candidate B? Are we going to manufacture now or later? All of that. And, frankly, if they are giving you taxpayer money, they better check what you are doing for this money, but I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to impose this type of bureaucracy on my scientists. I wanted to liberate them. So I told them, “Don’t worry about money. I give you the money. Just do the best you can. Talk only to yourselves, scientist to scientist, and find out what is the path to find the solution.” So this is how I thought about it.
Actually, I thought that the Warp Speed would like that, and I think many of them, they did. But there was part of a system that had a negative reaction to that. They felt that if we are not taking the money, we are not part of that. No. I wanted to be part of everything that they could do to help us. We could use any help that could be offered to us, but we didn’t want to use the money.
Eventually, that became a roadblock for us. We were facing cases that we didn’t have access to very critical materials that we had paid in advance and we had ordered in advance from manufacturers of third parties, and those people when we were going to collect the supplies that we wanted to run our studies to prepare in manufacturing, we were told, “You are not part of the list.” We said, “What list?” and the list was a list that Operation Warp Speed had produced that was saying which company had priority in getting supplies. And because we didn’t take the money, we were not on this list, but really, both‑‑I tried multiple times to be able to get them to lift this ban. They did it eventually but quite late.
I don’t think that they slow us down eventually because of that, but they made our life difficult.
MR. CAPEHART: So, Dr. Bourla, I’m going to jump in here with a question of my own since you’re talking about the bureaucracy here. It was very clear that then President Trump wanted the vaccine to come out before Election Day 2020, but Pfizer’s results weren’t made public until six days after the election. Did then President Trump or anyone on his staff apply pressure on you or your team to try to release the vaccines‑‑the vaccine results sooner?
DR. BOURLA: Never a legitimate pressure. The president himself called me a few times and also during the calls, as he did in public, he expressed his‑‑he was very clear he wants the vaccine as soon as possible and before the elections. It was very clear about it.
For me, I wanted the same, the first part, which is vaccine as soon as possible. I was agnostic to‑‑I’m sorry. I was agnostic to elections. Elections was not‑‑it was not an official timeline for me. What I wanted is to have it by end of October, which happened to be before the elections, because this was the goal I had set months in advance to my team.
Eventually came eight days later. So, for me, it was in eight, nine months, I would say, period of such an aggressive goal. The fact that I lost the timeline that I had said by eight days was nothing. For someone that was hoping the elections to move, it was everything, and that, I think, created a bitter taste. But this doesn’t mean that during the process of developing the vaccine, myself or anyone at Pfizer, received nonlegitimate pressure from the administration. No.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. Next, another question is coming from Wyoming. You’ve said many times that you told your team, you know, cost is not an issue. So Stephen Hoff of Wyoming wants to ask, “How much did the vaccine cost?”
DR. BOURLA: Well, the vaccine still costs because we are still investing a lot. As I told you, we are working on a new generation. We are working on omicron. We are working on pediatric. We are working on fourth dose and so a lot.
But when I made the calculation of how much that will cost us‑‑and I went to the board and said, “We are not going to take money from the government. It’s very risky. We are going to invest in high tech, which if will give results will be great, but it’s more risky to be successful. It’s a very long shot.” I calculated ultimately will be north of $2 billion that we will burn and we will have to write off if we fail.
We invested the $2 billion, and now it’s way more than that, of course, because we are continuing the research program.
MR. CAPEHART: This question comes from Wisconsin, Dave Bavinka. I hope I’m pronouncing your last name right, Dave. But Dave asks, “Are we prepared for the next pandemic?”
DR. BOURLA: Yes. I think we would be better prepared than the previous one, and I think we need to analyze what is it that worked well in this pandemic so that we can maintain it and what didn’t work well so that we can change it.
And, first of all, let’s come to an assessment. I think we did very well. Maybe now we think that it’s too much, two years and 6 million people dying during this period, but we should think that a scientific miracle and a manufacturing miracle happened that dramatically reduced the hospitalizations, the deaths, and the economic losses of the world occur. So it is‑‑we did extremely, extremely well from that aspect. Irrelevant is now, of course, we want more.
Now, I think what helped and we need to‑‑if there is a message that comes out from this pandemic, it was‑‑among the many, it is the significant volume that a vibrant life sciences ecosystem played and brought society and the role that it played. If we didn’t have this ecosystem with private sector between pharmas, biotechs, in collaboration with academia and then eventually with regulators around the world working so well, we wouldn’t have any of the solutions that we have now. And the days still would be dark.
We were able to generate vaccines, and that was the private sector together with academia. It was tests, vaccines, respirators, treatments. All of that came because of that.
So the key lesson, I think, for us to be well prepared for the next pandemic because we don’t know what will manifest itself, it is we must have a vibrant‑‑a vibrant life sciences sector that will be constantly there and would be able to produce innovation. I think that’s the number one.
What do we need to avoid? It is discussion that we want more regulation and more, let’s say, committees. I don’t think it was because of the committees that everything happened. It was because of the speed and sacrifice of thousands of people in the public service and in the private sector, and I think that’s what we need to make sure that we maintain.
MR. CAPEHART: We have a little less than five minutes left, and I want to squeeze in one more audience question and then a couple questions to close out.
This question comes also from Washington, D.C., from Marc Barbiere. He asks the question, “How will Pfizer adapt the mRNA technology to enhance preparedness for future threats?”
DR. BOURLA: I think we should make sure that we adapt all technologies, and we are advancing many technologies. It’s not clear that a future threat will be best handled with an mRNA technology or with a new type of technology that will be required and that will be way more tailored to this new threat.
So this is why I said before that what we need to do is to maintain our flexibility by maintaining a thriving life sciences ecosystem, and that’s it’s allows private. And we should not have any apprehension against the private sector when we understand that it was essential to save, let’s say, the world right now.
But mRNA, I don’t know if it will be for the next pandemic, but I know that it is a technology that has dramatic future. It’s not panacea. It’s not going to be the solution for every disease in the world, but we are just scratching the surface. And I am sure that we will see way more vaccines for other diseases by using mRNA, but also, I am very hopeful that we will see constant treatments by using mRNA. I’m sure that we will see genetic disease treatments by using this technology, and a lot of human pain will be alleviated because of that.
MR. CAPEHART: I want to come back to your book as we close out, close out this conversation, because we’ve run out of time. I haven’t even had a chance to ask you about the colorful commentary that your son, Mois, would provide for you after sitting in on a lot of your calls with scientists and world leaders. I definitely don’t have enough time to ask you, what was it about “Gilmore Girls”‑‑
MR. CAPEHART: ‑‑that provided an escape for you during the pandemic? And I want to‑‑and so I’ll close out by reading your words back to you. You wrote, “I am sharing the story of our moonshot, the challenges we faced, the lessons we learned, and the core values that allowed us to make it happen in hopes that it might inspire and inform your own moonshot, whatever that may be.”
Dr. Bourla, how do you hope this book will inspire others?
DR. BOURLA: I hope by recognizing that‑‑one thing, and there is a quote that I used in this book that I got from Aristotle. I have a lot of quotes from Greek philosophers there.
MR. CAPEHART: Yes.
DR. BOURLA: That’s my favorite quote. It says, “Our problem is not that we aim too high and we miss. Our problem is that we aim too low and we hit,” and this is a great articulation of the message that I want to give to people.
First of all, you need always to aim high. It is always you are going to receive way better results if you set the bar higher. That’s one.
And the second is it may be a fake comfort that you can get by being‑‑setting the bar low, by setting low goals and then keep them, and then you feel that life is good. But that’s mediocracy, and mediocracy never changed the world to the best.
And I want to inspire them by realizing that people don’t know what they can and what they cannot do, and if anything, they have a tendency to severely underestimate what they can deliver. And you will be surprised in your daily life or as a business leader if you ask your people to do something that is seemingly impossible, how much they will deliver.
MR. CAPEHART: And, in fact, Dr. Bourla, that quote, which is at the start of Chapter 3, is one that I underlined and starred because it is a life mantra that people should adopt. So I just give you those two sentences.
Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, thank you very much for coming to this subscriber exclusive edition of Washington Post Live.
DR. BOURLA: Thank you for having me. It’s a great honor.
MR. CAPEHART: Thanks again, and thank you, as always, for tuning in. To check out what interviews we have coming up, head to WashingtonPostLive.com.
Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Thank you again for tuning in to Washington Post Live.”