Pfizer CEO Says Science Will Prevail With Covid-19 Here to Stay
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In an interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, one of the people most responsible for helping to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 discusses how his company is navigating the pandemic.
John Micklethwait: How frightened should we be about the new coronavirus variants?
Albert Bourla: We should not be frightened, but we need to be prepared. So we are focusing right now on having a very good surveillance network, so every time that the new variant comes up, we should be able to test, at least in the labs, if the vaccine is effective or not.
Way back, we had discussed the possibility that a variant would arise for which the vaccine would not provide protection. And we were working on a process that will allow us to do the development very fast. Now we have started implementing this process.
I interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said it was especially important to get the second doses on time, because he thought that made a particular difference with the new variants. Do you agree?
I agree with that, absolutely. And I would say that in all scenarios, you need to make sure that you give the second doses within the time the studies recommend. And in our study we had from 19 to 42 days. Within this framework, the vaccine works. Beyond that, it’s a risk.
Is the Covid vaccine going to become like the annual flu shot?
I wouldn’t exclude that. If you were asking me two months ago, I would have said yes, it’s a possibility. If you ask me today, I think it is a high possibility. We do not know yet, but it looks like Covid is here to stay.
But also it looks like we have the tools to make Covid like the flu. That means it will not disturb our lives or the economy. We just need to be very vigilant about [tracking new] strains. And we need to be very vigilant about vaccinating people.
You’ve said quite recently that you could get six doses from every vial that you deliver, where previously people had talked about getting five. Can you just take us through that and how that changes some of the mathematics?
Getting six doses out of a vial was not a surprise to us. We knew it because we were filling the bottles. It’s just that when we were doing the studies, we had five doses. And then, when we applied for approvals, we didn’t have data to validate the six doses yet. With Europe we asked, “Would you like to wait a few weeks so that we can apply for six?” And they said, “No, you should apply now, and then when you have data for the six, you should provide it to us.”
So once we generated the data for six, we provided it not only to Europe but to all regulatory authorities. That, obviously, is very important because a dose was being wasted. It would remain in the vial and be thrown away. Now that’s not going to be the case. People are being instructed to try to extract the sixth dose. And they have the means to do it. We have already validated 36 combinations of different commercially available needles and syringes that can do that.
There’s been a real fuss in the EU over having enough doses. The German health minister had speculated about a ban on exports. You and other drug companies that create vaccines in Europe wouldn’t be allowed to export them outside the European Union. What’s your reaction to that?
I don’t think it’s a good idea even to insinuate that someone can ban the export of a vaccine. Let’s keep in mind that a lot of the materials needed to produce this vaccine are coming from other countries. So if one starts a ban, then what will be the response of another? That would be a lose-lose situation rather than a situation that will help Europe.
What we are doing, and doing very collaboratively, both with the European Commission and also with the state members, is to try to dramatically increase our manufacturing capacity. We have announced that we have a very solid plan to produce more than 2 billion doses this year. I understand that everybody wants something that can potentially open the economy and save lives. And I recommend a little bit of patience so that we will be able to do our job and provide product for everyone. There is a lot of tension because there is fear out there. So let the voices calm down. And everybody, let’s do our jobs.
How long will it take to get a Pfizer vaccine that doesn’t need to be kept at such dramatically low temperatures?
We are working on different forms that will be much easier to store. And one of them is, for example, a lyophilized version, which is a powder that you reconstitute. We are very advanced with this project, so I think we will start testing it in humans in the first half of this year.
You’ve had a few weeks now dealing with the Biden administration. What’s the main difference between them and the Trump administration?
First of all, I don’t want to take sides. But there is a clear difference. The current president is very much science-driven and -oriented. President Trump was much more gut-feeling-oriented. And with vaccines, because of complicated science, gut feeling is not the right way to go. I believe that people in the previous administration did their best to organize an operation to help the American people. But the indications are that the new people understand better what they are doing.
I want to talk about people who have fears about taking the vaccine. What are you doing to combat those fears? Or do you think that’s a job for government?
No, I think it’s a job for everyone. It’s a job for you as a journalist, it’s a job for the government, it’s a job of every scientist. What I would say to people who fear the vaccine is that they need to recognize that the decision to take it or not will not affect only their own lives. It will affect the lives of others. And most likely it will affect the lives of people that they love the most, who are the people that they socialize the most with. If you don’t take the vaccine, you are becoming the weak link that allows this virus to replicate. So please think twice before you make such a decision. And don’t let fear get in the way.
I know you’ve been part of the WHO’s Covax team to get vaccines to the world’s poorer countries. Are you worried at all about the idea that the rich world does get fairly vaccinated but then the poorer world doesn’t? Not only is that morally bad, but it also provides a kind of breeding ground for new variants of the virus.
In pandemics you are as protected as your neighbor. And it is extremely important that we will not let what you said happen, which is that the rich countries will get vaccinated and the poor will not. Not only because that will be a threat also to those countries—that’s not the point. The point is that there is human decency here. And there is a need for everyone to have equitable access to vaccines. In the low-income countries, Pfizer will provide this vaccine on a not-for-profit basis.
The U.S. has had more than 1,300 deaths for every million people. Go to Asia, and many countries have had fewer than 50 per million; China claims to have had three per million. So by any measure, America has had a rotten time. The main problem in the U.S. seems to be a health-care system that isn’t good at dealing with pandemics. So if you were in Joe Biden’s shoes and you were trying to do something about the health-care system, what would you do?
I believe that a lot contributed to this absolutely devastating number in the United States. The politicization of Covid was one of them. It became a political statement not to wear a mask, for example. That contributed significantly to the increased number of deaths.
But I believe one of the big lessons that Covid taught us is the power of science in the hands of the private sector. It was the private sector, the health-care industry, that resolved the [shortage] of ventilators in the beginning. And it was the health-care industry that brought the diagnostics in record time. And then later, the treatments, and now the vaccines. Those things didn’t happen by chance. They happened because we had a vibrant industry.
Should there be a kind of Manhattan Project to come up with vaccines in the future, where all the countries collaborate? Is that realistic?
The way that things are happening is not, “Let’s sit all together and work.” You need to have teams that know each other. They should have infrastructure and, in some cases, compete, because that’s also very healthy. During Covid‑19 there was significant collaboration between companies. And there was significant collaboration between regulatory agencies, academia, and the private sector. So we should be focusing on seeing what went right and building on it. What went wrong we will take out.
Edited for space and clarity.
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