The story behind Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine – CEO Bourlas “Moonshot”
The story behind Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine – CEO Bourlas “Moonshot”

The story behind Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine – CEO Bourlas “Moonshot”

For those who followed every step of the race to find a vaccine to end the Covid-19 pandemic, you might think there was not much more to learn. However, there is much to be gained by reading Albert Bourla’s account of Pfizer’s efforts to do what seemed impossible back in March 2020. Bourla is extremely honest in his book, right from the unprecedented challenges his team faced, to the missteps taken to the ultimate success that led to Pfizer’s vaccine.

There is no doubt that the route Bourla laid for the company was full of risks. There were different approaches to the type of vaccine to be pursued, but Bourla supported her scientific leaders’ decision to go for the unprecedented mRNA vaccine (an approach that Moderna also pursues). This would be a costly effort, and Bourla told her troops they had a blank check to bring a vaccine into the world as soon as possible. “Money is not a problem. Time is!” When told that the investment needed would amount to over $ 2 billion, he replied that “it would not crack us”. Perhaps that was true, but if these efforts proved fruitless, his shareholders could very well have ended his tenure as CEO.

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As we now know, that was not the case. This first-hand account of the challenges one faces, the solutions that were developed and the risks that had to be taken to be successful is enlightening.

For me, the best chapter is “The Ultimate Joy”. Anyone who has been involved in drug research and development has had the experience of being in a room, getting ready to hear the results of a central clinical trial of a drug or vaccine that your team has been working on for years. More often than not, the results are disappointing. On Sunday, November 8, 2020, Bourla and his team awaited the results of a clinical trial involving 46,000 patients worldwide with an unprecedented vaccine against a pandemic that would kill millions of people if left unchecked. Few if anyone has had such an experience. Still, despite the fact that we know the results, Bourla captures the intensity of the meeting, so you share the excitement of the spectacular results when they are revealed. It is also wonderful to hear the responses of those from whom Bourla shared the results, as with Dr. Anthony Fauci. “Tony, are you sitting down?” Fauci, who immediately realized he was about to hear either very good or very bad news, said, “Yes, I’m sitting.” When he heard about the efficiency of 95.6%, Fauci replied in a shocking voice: “Albert, this is a game changer.”

But just as challenging as coming up with the vaccine, the evolution of the manufacturing and shipping processes was just as daunting. Mike McDermott and his production team had to take a product “as fragile as a snowflake” and manufacture billions of doses to be shipped around the world. The ingenuity used to solve the many challenges posed in such a task was amazing. And this had to be done with the team realizing that every lost day was another day where thousands died. These efforts enabled McDermott’s team to go from early projections of 200,000 doses per year to $ 3 billion!

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Yet in some ways this was only the beginning of the story. When the vaccine’s strength was announced, Bourla was bombarded with calls from global leaders asking for as many doses as possible. Unfortunately, many countries, including the United States, placed many of their bets on vaccines from other companies, some of which failed. This led to world leaders struggling to access the Pfizer vaccine. Bourla’s heated interactions with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, show the challenges the CEO faced as he tried to be fair in the global distribution of the vaccine. Also important were the discussions that Bourla had with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which led to a unique collaboration with Israel becoming extremely important in providing real-world data on the vaccine’s durability and the possible need for boosters. The insights that Bourla provided for her interactions with global leaders during this crisis are both revealing and entertaining.

This book has value on a number of levels. First and foremost, it serves as a primer on leadership. Bourla is a demanding leader. However, he did not micro-control his people and more often than not followed their recommendations, such as how to select the right candidate vaccines for clinical trials, design clinical trials, and invest in unprecedented science. But make no mistake – he drove the team hard. In fact, so harsh that at one point he apologized to his management team for violating one of Pfizer’s central parts of their culture – “Joy”. This is just one example of Bourla honestly admitting mistakes he made during this grueling process.

But this book also has value for anyone involved in drug research and development. The thought process that the Pfizer team used to compress timelines and run large-scale studies in parallel should be applied in other drug research programs. And this book is a must for people in charge of drug manufacturing and supply chain issues, and there is a range of experience from the Pfizer experience.

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Finally, given the problems that the biopharmaceutical industry is currently facing In terms of drug pricing, the rationale used by Bourla to price Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is invaluable and should be a textbook example for companies launching new drugs. When Bourla was about to find herself at a price of $ 39 for a two-dose regimen, a member of his team said “It’s the price of a simple meal, not a groundbreaking vaccine.” It became the mantra used in Pfizer’s subsequent price discussions with wealthy nations.

(Disclaimer: I am a 30-year-old Pfizer veteran who retired in 2008. However, I have never met Dr. Bourla. Like millions of others, I am grateful to have been able to be vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. .)

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