Pfizer CEO and veterinarian Albert Bourla tells Penn Vet grads, ‘What we do matters’
Dr. Bourla talks about lessons learned from creating COVID vaccine
R. Scott Nolen
June 23, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic caused nearly 4 million deaths as of mid-June, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, but the virus’s impact is being mitigated thanks to vaccines made available in record time. One of those vaccines is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, shown to be 98% effective after two doses.
Pfizer CEO and veterinarian Dr. Albert Bourla was the speaker for the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s 136th annual commencement ceremony, held virtually May 17.
Dr. Andrew Hoffman, Penn Vet dean, noted in his introductory remarks that the core technology used in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines was created by two UPenn scientists: Drew Weissman, MD, and Katalin Karikó, PhD.
“They found a way to chemically modify the RNA and enclose it within liquid nanoparticles,” Dr. Hoffman explained. “This technology enabled safe, functional delivery of messenger RNA encoding the coronavirus’s spike proteins that led to robust immune response against the virus in animals.
We couldn’t focus on what the past told us we couldn’t do, and we couldn’t take no for an answer.
Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO, on the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
“In early November 2020, we learned that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which used the Karikó and Weissman RNA technology, was safe and efficacious in humans.”
Shortly thereafter, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and, later, the Moderna vaccine.
In June, the Biden administration announced plans to buy half a billion doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to donate to the world.
Creating a miracle
Dr. Bourla said the development of the COVID-19 vaccine is a story of incredible scientific achievement as well as a story filled with broader lessons that apply to many aspects of life.
Lesson one: People often have no concept of what they’re capable of achieving. As Dr. Bourla explained, vaccine development normally takes 10 years. Given the urgency of the pandemic, the Pfizer team accelerated that timeline, initially developing plans that would have delivered study results in 15 months and allowed Pfizer to produce tens of millions of doses by the second half of 2021.
“These plans would smash all previous records, but they simply weren’t good enough. We needed to deliver the vaccine even more quickly, and we needed to produce significantly more doses,” Dr. Bourla said.
“I asked the team to think about how many more people would get sick or die if we didn’t deliver sooner,” he continued. “We couldn’t focus on what the past told us we couldn’t do, and we couldn’t take no for an answer. Instead, we needed to figure out what science tells us we can do.
“In the end, the team came back with a plan that enabled us to deliver the vaccine in about nine months and that has us poised to deliver more than 2.5 billion doses in total by the end of 2021.
“That is what thinking big looks like.”
Lesson two: Luck never comes to the unprepared. Pfizer was working for years to position the company to quickly develop an mRNA vaccine.
It is a lesson Dr. Bourla learned as a veterinary student working with a team of researchers on lamb embryo transfer. After several failures, the procedure was a success.
“This experience taught me not to fear failure,” he said. “In science, failure comes with the territory. In vaccine research, for example, only one in 10 candidates in the clinic ever make it to the world. In science, failures don’t set us back—they actually keep us moving forward.”
Dr. Bourla’s history
Dr. Bourla received his veterinary degree and a doctorate in the biotechnology of reproduction from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki School of Veterinary Medicine in Greece. He joined Pfizer in 1993 in its former Animal Health Division as technical director of Greece.
“I chose to attend veterinary school because I love animals and I was fascinated by the mysteries of life. I still do, and I still am,” Dr. Bourla said in his prerecorded address.
He held positions of increasing responsibility within the Animal Health Division across Europe, before moving to Pfizer’s New York global headquarters in 2001. From there, Dr. Bourla went on to assume a succession of leadership roles within the division, including U.S. group marketing director from 2001-04, vice president of business development and new products marketing from 2004-06, and area president for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East from 2006-09. In 2009, he assumed additional responsibilities for the Asia and Pacific regions.
Dr. Bourla left the Animal Health Division and was named president and general manager of Pfizer’s established products in 2010, leading the development and implementation of strategies and tactics related to Pfizer’s off-patent portfolio. Then Pfizer announced in 2012 that it was spinning off its Animal Health Division. Zoetis became a completely independent company in February 2013.
From 2014-16, Dr. Bourla served as group president of Pfizer’s global vaccines, oncology, and consumer health care. He was instrumental in building a strong and competitive position in oncology and expanding the company’s leadership in vaccines, according to his company biography. He then served from February 2016 to December 2017 as group president of Pfizer Innovative Health, which comprised the business groups covering consumer health care, inflammation and immunology, internal medicine, oncology, rare diseases, and vaccines. In addition, he created the Patient and Health Impact Group, dedicated to developing solutions for increasing patient access to Pfizer’s medicines, demonstrating the value of those medicines, and ensuring broader innovation in business models.
Prior to taking the reins as CEO in January 2019, Dr. Bourla served as the biopharmaceutical giant’s chief operating officer beginning in January 2018, responsible for overseeing the company’s commercial strategy, manufacturing, and global product development.
Dr. Bourla commended Penn Vet’s Class of 2021 for earning veterinary degrees during a pandemic, describing the accomplishment as “nothing short of fantastic.”
“Your hard work and devotion have resulted in you now becoming part of what I consider to be one of the most elite, important, and maybe underappreciated fraternities and sororities in the world.”
Dr. Bourla told the class of graduates to remember “ours is a profession that has an enduring, positive social impact. What we do matters and makes our planet better. We make a difference, and that’s something that cannot be said of all professions.”
He closed with a quote attributed to a fellow Greek and the namesake of his university, Aristotle: “Our problem is not that we aim too high, and we miss. Our problem is that we aim too low and hit.”