After overseeing the development of a coronavirus vaccine in record time, Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer Inc., is no stranger to driving progress at lightning speed.
At the 2023 WWD Beauty CEO Summit, in conversation with Jenny B. Fine, executive editor, beauty, WWD and Beauty Inc, Bourla recounted the vaccine creation process during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the changes it brought about at Pfizer.
“What makes differences in the culture are the unwritten rules. It is the mindset that people are having at the moment,” Bourla said. “When I took over the company, it was in very good shape, my predecessors had done a fantastic job. My transformation was to position the company from a very good marketing machine to a scientific powerhouse. I wouldn’t be able to do that unless I created a very strong foundation for the company.”
Bourla took over as chief executive officer in January of 2019 — just about a year before the world was forever changed. The pandemic accelerated the realization of Bourla’s vision, and to implement it, he had four key tenets.
“The first one is courage, and you saw it in the decisions that were made during COVID[-19],” said Bourla. “The second was excellence in execution, and we saw that in the way we were able to do things that weren’t possible to do.
“The third was equity, and that drove a lot of our decisions like how we priced the product,” continued Bourla, “and at the end of crisis, found ourselves on the right side of history. And the last is joy.”
One thing that didn’t impact Bourla’s decision-making when it came to developing the vaccine was budget concerns. Early on, his message to the team was spend whatever it takes, a gutsy decision for the leader of a publicly traded enterprise. “I could calculate some aspects,” he said. “I knew it had to be north of $2 billion. And Pfizer is a big company, and $2 billion wasn’t going to break the company. Every company, losing billions is not good, but we had very different things at stake because of what could have happened if we failed.”
Another crucial decision involved not accepting money from the government to help finance the vaccine’s development. “When you’re taking money from someone, there’s always strings attached — especially when it is the government, because it’s taxpayer money,” said Bourla. “Pfizer is also a very big corporate bureaucracy. I didn’t want to add the external bureaucracy.”
As well, Bourla wanted to keep Pfizer above the fray in an environment that was becoming increasingly polarized. “I saw how politicized it all was becoming — it was becoming the focal point of confrontation between government opposition between the two parties, between red and blue states,” he said. “From my perspective, I wanted to isolate Pfizer as much as possible from the politics, so I said no money from taxpayers. I’m not sure I succeeded in isolating Pfizer; the politics became the epicenter of every political debate. But it was going to be way worse.”
Partnering with BioNTech on the vaccine and deciding to leverage its messenger RNA (mRNA) technology was another make-or-break decision the executive made in the early days. “Pfizer had multiple technologies at the time,” he said, noting there was no data at the time that could point to a clear path forward. Pfizer’s senior scientific leaders supported the use of BioNTech’s technology, and Bourla used that to guide his decision-making.
As successful as Bourla was in overseeing the creation of the vaccine, the period was one of immense pressure. When asked how he handled the stress, Bourla was candid about the toll it took. “I was well trained to resist stress because of my daughter,” he joked, “But I don’t think I did well on that front. I pushed a lot of people to do what they did, and I never regretted that, but I lost it many times because of the stress, and that was unfair.
“People are watching and seeing everything you do be interpreted,” he said. “If your mood or body language reflects anxiety, it paralyzes other organisms. So you need to relearn how, first of all, not to fake, but how to not be stressed, knowing that things will be relieved, and that the glass is half full. I come from Greece — we speak with our hands and we demonstrate out emotions very clearly, we can’t hide ourselves easily,” he continued. “But I’m aware of the impact.”
When asked what about the current geopolitical landscape worries him the most, Bourla pointed to the dissemination of disinformation. “There are way more opportunities in the world than challenges,” he said. “But for me, the thing that shook the foundations of my beliefs was this crisis of disinformation… That could cost lives, could cost a fortune.”
He continued that the onus rests on governments to combat disinformation. “I strongly believe that the source of good should be the elected officials,” Bourla said. “They are the people who are elected to throw the ball. I have not been elected by anyone… more and more, the business community faces greater credibility with the public; there is many times insolvency when you click on data.”
Bourla and his team worked tirelessly during the pandemic to transparently share information with the public. Bourla had to do it twice, first with the vaccine and second with the treatment, and acknowledged it was a key goal — but not very difficult. “Look, we saved the world,” he said. “So that was not very difficult for me to do.”