At the New York labs of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla showed correspondent Alina Cho where scientists are working on the next generation of COVID vaccines, testing vaccinated and unvaccinated cell samples against new variants. These are the same labs where they helped pioneer the original vaccine.
Think back to two years ago, as COVID-19 spread across the world, when the normal timeline for the development of a vaccine was eight to ten years. “You went to your team and you said, ‘Get one in eight months,'” said Cho. “Did you honestly believe you could get it done?”
“I felt that we don’t have option to fail,” Bourla replied.
And it was just eight months later when Pfizer executives, partnering with BioNTech, were celebrating promising vaccine results,.
Just a month later:. At the same time, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and other companies were making their own vaccines.
Bourla helped steer vaccine shipments around the globe from his desk at home. “I spent most of the time here, actually, during the pandemic,” he laughed.
“This is where you took a lot of your calls, right? From a lot of world leaders?”
“Like, who called you?”
There was one world leader who thought the vaccine didn’t come soon enough. Pfizer’s vaccine results were made public on November 9, 2020 – six days after Election Day and President Donald Trump’s re-election loss. “He made very clear to the world that he wanted the vaccine to come before the election,” Bourla said. “Eventually, the vaccine came after the election. I think that is what frustrated him. He didn’t call to thank me or congratulate me, but also he didn’t call to complain. He just didn’t call.”
That, of course, was only one chapter in the politicization of the pandemic. Vaccine hesitancy remains high. Fewer than one-third of all Americans are fully-vaccinated and boosted, well behind many other wealthy countries.
Bourla has a new book discussing the challenges: “Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible” (Harper Business). In it he writes: “What if we had accomplished these breakthroughs only to discover that the public would refuse the shot for lack of trust in the industry, the company, or the science itself?”
Cho asked, “So, in some ways, do you think that’s what happened?”
“I think that, to a very high degree, it happened,” he said.
“Doesn’t that upset you personally? You’ve worked so hard on getting this vaccine to market safely. It doesn’t upset you?”
“It doesn’t upset me. What it makes me feel is very sad. Beyond sad. Because I know the consequences of the way that these people are thinking. And a lot of them are suffering these consequences and they are dying.”
Politics have become personal for Bourla. He’s been a target of death threats. At one point a fake report surfaced online that he had forced his wife to get the vaccine and it had actually killed her.
He said, “The first thing that I thought, ‘I need to call my kids, and I need to call her parents, to make sure that they don’t read it before I tell them that your daughter or your mom is still alive.’ I was very, very upset.”
Bourla has said he considers “vaccine equity” a high priority: making sure everyone globally has equal access to shots. Pfizer charged full-price to wealthy nations, but sold at-cost to poorer countries. Yet, vaccine equity seems far off.
A recent report by Amnesty International states that only four percent of those living in low-income countries are fully vaccinated.
“That’s terrible,” said Bourla. “And I think that we could have done better by having vaccination centers there, and particularly by convincing people of these countries that they should get the vaccine.”
Bourla believes yearly COVID vaccine shots are in our future, just like flu shots, and a vaccine for the 6-month-to-5-year-old set could be approved in the next few months.
After two years of pandemic, Bourla is optimistic that a brighter future might finally be right around the corner.
Cho asked, “Do you envision a world in which we’ll be able to take our masks off for good?”
“Oh, yes. I think so. And I think that will be this year,” he replied. “Take the vaccines, and we should be able to live our lives.”
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Story produced by Alan Golds. Editor: Karen Brenner.
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