Dispatches from Bio Digital 2021

Pfizer CEO: ‘There is renewed hope and trust in science’

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Urupong
© GettyImages/Urupong

Related tags booster Pfizer pandemic variants

A lesson learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic was that human ingenuity prevailed and resolved an issue that challenged the world; the crisis also reinforced faith in the power of science, said Dr Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, in a keynote interview during Bio Digital 2021.

“There is renewed hope and trust in science, particularly biological sciences,” ​he said.

Bourla, who was in conversation with Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of Bio, sees the crisis as having a lasting impact, with the advancements made in developing COVID-19 vaccines encouraging young people to enter the field of biotech.  

The pandemic, in addition, showed up the importance of a vibrant private sector, said the Pfizer boss.

The rapid development of vaccines along with diagnostics, and other treatments to tackle COVID-19 was a clear illustration of the “unparalleled, unmatched”​ value that the private sector can bring to society, he noted. "That might not fit [some people's] narrative, but you can't fight the truth."

Scientific advances

McMurry-Heath asked him to what extent is Pfizer already applying the scientific learnings gleaned during the company's work on the COVID-19 shot, in collaboration with BioNTech, to other diseases.

In response, he said that, in terms of a technology, mRNA has proven to be "very powerful"​ and Pfizer and others have only "scratched the surface"​ of what can be achieved with this tool.

Beyond the specificity of that technology, he said the pharma giant learnt that it could work differently, at an accelerated pace, and yet achieve a more successful outcome.   

“There is a second wave of learning that came from this crisis which is how you can use digital to accelerate [work], how you can structure your clinical research centers in a way that recruitment is faster, how you organize the logistics around samples so you can have ‘real time’ results, how you can [carry out] manufacturing in parallel with research, and minimize waste.

“I think that we learnt so much about the processes of conducting clinical trials and bringing medicines or vaccines to the world, that it will change the way we do things forever.”

Vaccine hesitancy

And he touched on the massive level of transparency Pfizer brought to the vaccine development process from the outset; the goal of that ongoing dissemination was to ensure public confidence in the work the company was doing but also to counter vaccine hesitancy.

The drug maker worked to ensure a diverse treatment population in its vaccine trials to shore up greater trust in the process as well, said the CEO

Though, of course, it is not just down to the vaccine makers or the scientific community, he said, to counter unwillingness of individuals to get vaccinated now or during future pandemics.

“It is politicians, family, friends, community leaders who will make a difference,” ​stressed Bourla.

Vaccine equity

Referencing the ongoing debate about vaccine equity, he said Pfizer is really dedicated to getting the necessary volumes produced and distributed to all countries, all regions. Its aim is to produce 7 billion doses by the end of 2022 and it has established a tiered pricing scheme to ensure poorest countries are only paying for what it costs to develop the vaccine.

In terms of expanding the scale of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing, Bourla stressed that the only production bottleneck right now is the lack of raw materials. “We are using specialized raw materials, lipids, that are being manufactured for the first time at this scale and they are very challenging to manufacture. We are growing the production of the [lipid] suppliers by helping them financially and technologically.”

The company is also doing some of that production in house, he added.

Emergent strains, booster shots

The CEO also weighed in on emergent strains and whether booster shots will be necessary.

“There is no variant [identified] now that escapes the [immune] protection [provided by] our vaccine but the scenario that one day a variant will emerge that will be more skillful in evading the protection [provided by] our vaccine is real. This is not something that should worry us. This tells us we need to be prepared. Our role is to check all the variants constantly wherever they emerge.”

Once the team comes to the conclusion that one of the variants is evading the immune protection of the Pfizer jab, it would look to tailor the vaccine for this variant in less than 100 days, including filing to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the production of the necessary doses, said the Pfizer CEO.

The company is only in the process of finalizing studies to determine if COVID-19 booster shots are required. Data, so far, suggests that, in the case of the company’s vaccine, a booster shot would be needed somewhere between 8 and 12 months after the second dose, said Bourla.

Of course, FDA approval and a CDC strategy would need to follow any decisive dataset. “But it is a likely scenario and we are ready for it.”

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