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Pfizer's Albert Bourla Bets Big on Beating Future Pandemics

Pfizer's Albert Bourla Bets Big on Beating Future Pandemics

By Isabelle Lee


If you're not dead from COVID, this man could be the reason why.

By Isabelle Lee

We owe a debt of gratitude to Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Bourla. Thanks to his leadership, Pfizer created and is distributing an incredibly effective vaccine in record time. The former veterinarian joins us on The Carlos Watson Show to discuss COVID-19, the Pfizer vaccine and his journey to renown. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Crafting a Course to CEO

Carlos Watson: Do you think because you had spent so many times in different markets, that in any way gave you a competitive advantage when it came ultimately to the CEO succession opportunity, or do you think it was just the path you took?

Albert Bourla: I don’t know if it gave me a competitive advantage, but it definitely helped say who I am. The fact that I was exposed to so many cultures, living in so many countries and cities made me understand that there is never a center of the world. But the world is full of connectivity, and the same thing can be accepted or not in different cultures. You can say the same thing in different ways and still mean it and still be acceptable in different cultures. But it gave me this cultural sensitivity. I think it helped me a lot to be who I am.

Watson: Now, you were a veterinarian by training, yes?

Bourla: I am.

Watson: So how does a veterinarian become CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world?

Bourla: I don’t know. It’s not forbidden for veterinarians to be CEOs, last time I checked. But it’s an unconventional path, I agree. The connection is that I was recruited by Pfizer in the animal health division of Pfizer. We had a very large animal health business, which was medicines for animals. And as a veterinarian, I was recruited so that I can contribute to this business. I stayed many years of my career in the animal health business before I moved to the biopharmaceutical business that these medicines for humans are for.

Watson: Did that in any way, Albert, make you a more creative scientist in the end? Like I’m thinking about this very short window in which you and your team developed the vaccine. And I’m wondering if the fact that you worked with different species and maybe in different spaces maybe allowed you to think more broadly about how you may get from point A to point B?

Bourla: I think it helped a lot. It helped because, coming from a very different world, the animal health world was a world of limited resources. … So we learned to do things the smart way because they didn’t have much opportunity to do it in a very lucrative way. But also that comes in Greece … Greece was quite a poor country in Europe and a small country, and over there also we learn to do things the smart way and try to find solutions to do a lot with less. So then when suddenly I came to human health, from one hand I was impressed with the resources that we had. But also, on the other hand, I could see things that the others wouldn’t.

How Pfizer Created the Vaccine

Watson: So what ended up allowing the impossible to happen? Because for me, it almost reminds me a little bit of the moon landing. … What ended up making the difference? And when was the moment that you realized that this actually could happen, that you could deliver something viable and effective in the fall?

Bourla: I tried to liberate scientists from the internal bureaucracy. So, there’s a chain of command, how science can come all the way to me. They need to speak to the lieutenant and the colonel and all up to me. We flattened that. We instituted twice-a-week meetings with everybody there; multiple levels of management, all. So everything was discussed real-time, and the decision will be taken on the spot, rather than have to go through a committee and committee that were approved to bring it to me.

I tried to protect them from the external bureaucracy, so I didn’t take the money from the government. I made money not an issue to them. I knew it was going to be an expensive proposition. We estimated that it would be around $2 billion if we did that. I knew it was very high with the risk, but I knew that the world was expecting us to do that. I counted that the reputation gains that we’ll have by investing in this area are going to be very high, even if we fail to produce a vaccine. And I told my board group it is going to be very painful if we don’t make a vaccine, we’ll lose the money, but it will not take us down. So we will continue to exist. We have the ability to absorb it.

But as I said, the fundamental is that there was a belief in all people that it can be done. Failure is not an option. It can be done. There is a way, just we need to find how.

Watson: Where did that mindset come from? Because you and I both know that that’s not always what happens under pressure. With these difficult situations, this is not always the approach and the result.

Bourla: Yeah. Very clearly, it is my mindset. I operate like that. It wouldn’t be enough though. I needed to convince everyone, and I wouldn’t be able to convince everyone if no one else was like that. So in this team, there were seven other people that were like me. Yes, we can find a way. Yes, we can find a way.

So the fact that there was so much insisting on finding a way gave them the license to start preaching as well. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. And start preaching even to their bosses because it could happen that the person underneath was the one who was the believer, and the boss was more conservative.

So when you have this, because you are getting this license to dare to try, basically, the whole thing is to inspire people. And also, I wouldn’t call it emotional blackmail, but there was an emotional challenge for all because I was very clear and vocal. If we don’t do it, be ready for a lot of people that you know to keep dying of COVID; this is what history is telling us. So they knew that failure is not an option, so they were really trying.

The If Future Vs. The When Future

Watson: So where do we go from here? Bill Gates told me, and Fauci as well, that they worry that sadly, this may not be the last pandemic we’ll see this decade, that we may see more.

Bourla: I think there’s a high likelihood that this will happen. It’s a likely scenario. I don’t know if it is extremely likely it will happen in 10 years or in 20 or in five or in 100, but clearly, pandemics, and definitely epidemics, will be happening. There is no doubt. And I agree that the next pandemic or epidemic should find the world much better prepared.

From my perspective, for example, in Pfizer, I know that we are seeing this [COVID-19] also as a case study. So how can we prepare our operation, so if next time a different thing is coming, how can we learn from what we did well? How can we learn from what we weren’t ready to do? And could we have been doing better if we were, so that we’re ready and able to respond even faster or more effectively?

And maybe we were lucky this time and the right technology worked on the right virus, but we may need more time next time to be able to do something like that. So I want to make sure that we have all the resources in place so there will be no waste of time for things other than science fighting the new pandemic.

Watson: And what does that mean for you? Does that mean a little bit like Xerox in the old days with the Xerox labs, that you’ll create a dedicated group that’s focused on that? Does that mean that you’ll have more active scanning for these viruses? What does that mean for you to be better prepared for the next one?

Bourla: It is all of the above. We are building many more labs. We are building labs that we didn’t have. And we had to go outside to do things. We are building manufacturing infrastructure. We believe that the mRNA technology could become pivotal. It could become the new thing in vaccination with technology. So we are building a lot of infrastructure, so to make sure that it is there if there is a need.

So next time, we will not start with 10 million this month, 30 million the next month, 50 million the month after, but start straight with 100 million doses the first month, 200 million does a month. And so we are doing all of that. So infrastructure, laboratories, scientists and the surveillance system.

Watson: What’s interesting as I hear you say it, it makes me wonder whether for a new generation of college students, this may become a new area that they may become interested in, whereas they may not have thought about this kind of work before. But I wonder if, in an unexpected way, this may bring more talent into the field.

Bourla: I’m sure. And I see that constantly. I’m sure that this will happen. I see it constantly with the young generation, they need something more than a salary in their career path. When I was young, it was enough for a good salary and a good career path to give your devotion to a company. Now, young people need to feel that they are part of the greater good. They want to feel that their work has an impact on society. They want to feel that they are building something novel, that they are offering something to society.

So it’s very clear that now, a lot of young people are oriented toward science, so that they can also fight pandemics, rather than as before, for example, it was a clear trend, science that can fight the environmental crisis. So I think we will see that a lot coming forward.

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