In this episode of Fireside Chat, we sat down with Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO, Pfizer to talk about the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, their international and U.S. contribution to the battle against the pandemic, the five-point plan to rally the biopharma industry and their desire to collaborate on combating global pandemics and partnering with leading health systems in areas of shared interest.
Please note: The number of COVID-19 cases and the situation referenced in this episode were based on reported data at the time of the interview and are subject to change.
Albert Bourla 0:03
As a leader, I think staying focused on what matters most has been essential to serve as we are living our values and supporting our employees and communities.
Gary Bisbee 0:14
That was Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO, Pfizer. Albert was responding to a question about leadership in times of crisis. And he spoke about the importance of a laser focus by his executive leadership team and himself. I’m Gary Bisbee. And this is Fireside Chat. Earlier in his Pfizer career, Albert was Group President of Global Vaccines Oncology and Consumer Healthcare businesses. We dug into the value of vaccines and the issues related to developing a vaccine for COVID-19. He referred to Pfizer’s entering for vaccine candidates into testing during April. To get to market as quickly as possible. Pfizer will concurrently modify and ramp up existing manufacturing facilities to meet the needs of the clinical trial and VA Our conversation covers Pfizer’s international and US contribution to the COVID-19 battle. Pfizer’s five point plan to rally the biopharma industry to collaborate on combating global pandemics and Pfizer’s commitment to partnering with leading health systems and areas of shared interest. Let’s welcome Albert Bourla to the microphone.
Good afternoon, Albert. We’re pleased to have you on the microphone. Welcome.
Albert Bourla 1:27
Thank you very much, Gary. It’s a great pleasure to be with you.
Gary Bisbee 1:30
Well, by way of background for today’s conversation, again, we appreciate your being with us due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We’re all facing challenges and seeking opportunities to contribute none more than Pfizer as a leading multinational pharmaceuticals and vaccines company. So to begin our conversation, Albert, could you share with us what Pfizer is doing to contribute to support the Battle of COVID-19 both internationally and in the US?
Albert Bourla 1:56
Of course, first, let me say that it is both a great privilege and a great responsibility for our colleagues to serve patients in general. And particularly at this moment in time, we have an opportunity to demonstrate to society, the power of our science, and the quality of our character because we want to make sure that at the end of this crisis, we find ourselves in the right type of humanity as well. So as one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies our focus in this crisis is dual. On the one hand, we are focused on protecting the safety and well being for our colleagues, while maintaining the continued supply of our medicines to patients around the globe. But also on the other hand, and more specifically, we are working with experts, both within and outside of Pfizer to contribute medical solutions to this pandemic. So let me share some of the examples. This is what you were asking, first of all, in finding medical solutions or collaborating with industry partners and academic institutions to develop potential new approaches to prevent and treat COVID-19 We aim to leave no stone unturned and I’m pleased to say we have made advances on multiple fronts. We announced recently that Pfizer and biotech have entered into a global cooperation agreement to co-develop biotech’s potential first and last mRNA based Coronavirus vaccine program aimed at preventing COVID-19 infection. We plan to jointly conduct clinical trials for these vaccines in easier integration Europe and in fact, there are not only one but four candidates that are on testing right now. Among multiple research sites, we intend to initiate this phase one clinical trials as early as next week. And assuming of course, the regulatory clearance that they will allow us to go to humans. We are working very collaboratively with both EMA and FDA. Biotech inside that will also work jointly to commercialize elections worldwide, excluding China. Upon regulatory approval, we estimate that there is potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020. And that’s important because I think fall will be the period without knowing, but many of us are afraid that we may have some spike in the infection rates as is happening with. As I said, we don’t know, but it is a possibility. So that’s why it’s important to have some ready this fall. That is difficult, but we will try it and I want to thank everyone for working on this project. And based also on the results of initial screening, we are working on a treatment center, we have confirmed for multiple molecules at least one, together with several analogs of this. That is opening up the show basically in plain English, they have the potential to trick Coronavirus. And we will perform some confirmatory studies and we are investing also in materials authority. So before knowing if indeed it is working we’ll be able to have materials in pencil when we find out and if we find out that we can move in an expedient manner to experience, we can do it without stopping. And also in addition to these exciting scientific updates, we play our own. We commit to $40 million in medical and charitable cash grants to help combat the disease. And we announced together with literally, Eli Lilly and Merck, in a joint announcement that we are going to enable our employees who are licensed medical professionals to aid in the fight and gets to COVID-19 and make it very easy program wish they can go if they wish to support from Pfizer and with a job waiting for them once they want to go back.
Gary Bisbee 5:44
Well, congratulations on the last point particularly. And by the way, the Academy is working with the three of you, Pfizer, Merck, and Lilly to help find the right health systems for your employees to work in. So we’re very appreciative of that. We also know the terrific support through the Pfizer foundation with the $40 million and not an insubstantial sum, you recently call them the biopharma industry to collaborate on combating global pandemics with the five-point plan. And I wonder if you could share with us, Albert, what led to the development of the plan? And what are the specific points of the five-point plan?
Albert Bourla 6:25
In recent years the rich life science industry has brought forward some of the most impactful medical breakthroughs known to society, therapies from HIV or cancer, as extended mediums apply to novel therapies right now. So we know that as an industry, we can change the face of global public health. And there’s no challenge that we cannot overcome. It is true, but right now, most of the world’s hope is invested on us to be able to find a credible or rapid service organization. We want to work as one team with our interested people. And partners closely with federal agencies to more rapidly bring forward variants of options. So we need to prepare the industry to better respond to a future global health crisis. This is the goal of their five-point plans, which is a master thing to connect all members of the innovation ecosystem from large farmers, the smallest of biotech companies, from the government to academic institutions. And since we launched it, I can tell you that we have received in excess of 240 companies requesting help on multiple levels from Pfizer so that they can progress solutions against COVID-19.
Gary Bisbee 7:39
That’s a very impressive 240 companies, can you share with us what the specifics of the five-point plan are?
Albert Bourla 7:45
Yes, the first one was about we also have tools and insights. We are rapidly improving our knowledge but very little is known about the virus. So many organizations are working to develop, for example, cell-based assays. Viral screening or serological essays or relational models to test potential therapies and vaccines. And we are doing the same and we committed to making these vital tools. But also we are about an open-source platform to the broader scientific community and we ask everybody else to do the same. So, specific knowledge of one institution should also always be certain to not be a bottleneck for another institution that doesn’t have this known brokenness there. So that’s a first that’s setting two sides. I think also, it’s good to marshal our people because our people are very skillful, but they are already devoted to many important tasks fighting other diseases. So that’s why we have created a SWOT team of the leading biologists, chemists, clinicians, epidemiologists, vaccines, experts, pharmaceutical scientists, you name it, that we put them to focus solely on the virus. In this pandemic, and they have a great passion and they apply this passion and commitment and expertise to this single focus, writing the discovery of vaccines or therms. The third point is applying or drug development expertise, and that has to do with many smaller biotech companies, screen company compounds of existing therapies, but they are lacking the experience in late-stage development. And they’re liking the experience of navigating the complex regulatory systems, no matter how much regulators want to make it easy. So Pfizer is committed to seeing our clinical development and regulatory expertise to support the most promising companies. And as I said, 240 companies, a lot of them, want to transform this area, the forces we are offering our manufacturing capabilities. Once a therapy or vaccine is approved, it will need to rapidly scale and can be drawn around the world to put an end to pandemic As one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines and therapeutics, we are committed to using any excess manufacturing capacity and potentially 16 productions. So to create even more capacity to the degree that you are not hurting other groups of patients, we sought to support Iraq, getting these life-saving breadcrumbs into the hands of the page again, so you made, again, a number of requests for support for manufacturing. And last but not least, we are committed to improving future rapid responses to address future global health threats. We are reaching out to federal agencies, including NIH, CDC, BARDA to build a cross-industry rapid response team of scientists, clinicians, technicians able to move into action immediately when future epidemic surfaces so this is the essence of this five-point plan.
Gary Bisbee 10:57
Yeah, very comprehensive and impressive. Thanks for sharing Albert, I was going to ask you what success looks like, but with 240 companies already reaching out, I think that is the first step in success. Do you have other thoughts about success over the next several years of the five-point plan?
Albert Bourla 11:16
No, I mean, the first four points need to be assessed immediately right when I tell me the next few quarters. because we assess based on our ability to all together bring solutions. We have already created open platforms and they put a lot of stuff over there so people can access it. And we are asking other people and they are doing the same. But the fundamental successes when we have an effective and safe vaccine, available in quantities that can find this pandemic, and an effective and safe treatment available in quantities that can affect this today. Of course, it will lead to testing, etc. But I’m speaking on the areas that our peers can focus to contribute.
Gary Bisbee 12:04
Another question was how’s the five-point plan been received by your Pfizer colleagues? I would imagine that they’re very enthusiastic about it.
Albert Bourla 12:11
They are proud. And I can’t imagine the number of emails that we are receiving daily. And we try to measure it also serves as a direction about how our people feel. And the number one word that comes out is not grateful, is not safe, is not unsafe, is not concerning… I am proud. Proud of what Pfizer is doing, as I said, is very important, because what is happening right now will be remembered for the years to come. How Pfizer, as a lawyer, responded to this towards their employees will be remembered by our people for the years to come, and will be remembered by the medic remembered by the patient.
Gary Bisbee 12:51
Well, it’s a great example of Pfizer’s leadership. Let’s turn to another aspect of your leadership and that is the board of directors. How often are you communicating with your board of directors about COVID-19?
Albert Bourla 13:04
Gary, we’re fortunate to have a highly engaged board. And they care a lot about the opening of our colleagues and stop buying for them. But also top of mind for them is Pfizer’s role in the current pandemic. They also feel proud of what we are doing. And I have been in very frequent contact with the board regarding our top priorities to see the pandemic become Primerica I regularly say everything, I’m giving them an update of the rapidly emerging situation and the things that we are doing. We’ve had the opportunity to combine wellness this month to discuss our actions. Our discussion centered on the steps you’re taking to protect the health and wellness of the people and also serve as healthcare providers and patients have access to our medicine for vaccines and discovering medical solutions for this someday.
Gary Bisbee 13:54
Your weekly meetings, I take it that they are virtual board meetings?
Albert Bourla 13:59
I don’t know about virtual meetings, I have virtual written communication, and send updates to them. And it says out of order board meeting that was a call in the month of April, but that was devoted predominantly to the discussion.
Gary Bisbee 14:14
Okay, good. One other quick question. How do you communicate? Or how often do you communicate with your Pfizer colleagues?
Albert Bourla 14:20
I try to one way or another also on a weekly basis. And in the beginning, I was not thinking of doing it that frequently. But I realized the positive impact of this communication. So I try to alternate or send videos or send written communications, but quite often.
Gary Bisbee 14:39
Well, I’m sure they appreciate that. Many of our audience are executives of the leading integrated delivery networks. I know that Pfizer’s prioritized partnering with the IDNs and I suspect that they do as well. But could you provide an example of areas of mutual interests between Pfizer and these large IDNs?
Albert Bourla 14:59
IDNs are focused on certain priorities, like a clinical trial, innovation, and patient experiences. Cloud can work together to deliver social determinants of health so that we can provide healthier population, value-based care, and population health initiatives, data analytics, and digital technology solutions, such as telehealth, remote patient, monitoring, etc, etc. I think those partnerships, particularly when they focus on shared priorities can lead to breakthroughs in transformational change in ways that neither Pfizer nor doctors can be independent.
Gary Bisbee 15:41
Right. Pfizer has been very supportive of working with ideas through the Academy, two particular areas. One is an integrated research agenda for care redesign and another for cardiovascular care to develop best practices in that space. Both the ideas and the academy appreciates five or support and the Pfizer team working with us, just give them a call out Albert, they’ve just been terrific. Congratulations.
Albert Bourla 16:08
Thank you for letting me know. And you’re also very proud to work with you.
Gary Bisbee 16:12
Excellent. While we’re discussing leadership, leaders learn lessons during times of crisis. And as CEO, what lessons have you in your executive leadership team learned so far due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Albert Bourla 16:26
You know, it goes without saying that this is a difficult time for everyone. And the public health dollars as opposed by COVID-19 have impacted almost every aspect of our lives. And we shouldn’t see it like that. We should not try to separate professionals from personal hardships because at a certain point, the two that come together as a leader. I think staying laser-focused on what matters, most convenient stencils, and service. We are living our values and supporting our employees and communities. We have set very early priorities with my leadership team. And we are staying laser-focused to make sure that everything falls under those areas. The first was the safety and well being of our people. And we follow it and we are monitoring. The second is in service continued supply of our medicines and vaccines to patients around the world. If people cannot go to a restaurant, it’s an unfortunate courtesy. But if they cannot get their medicine, it can be a tragedy. So it’s important that we will be able to provide their medicines that they are needing for every disease that they may need them for. And finally, the third priority was a commitment to work together to discover brands and therapists and vaccines to address this crisis. And you jump into it and you need to make sure that you bring a positive phone and the compassion for everybody needs to see that the leader is having right now. That’s why I think Pfizer remains committed to do that. And we try to lead by example.
Gary Bisbee 17:59
Well, we looked at following up with you as this crisis unfolds, love to have your continued thoughts about leadership and lessons learned, turning to vaccine development. And you mentioned this earlier, which we appreciate. But I’ve been eager to ask you this question given the fact that you were a group president of vaccines on collagen consumers earlier in your career at Pfizer, and you mentioned the four vaccines that are going into clinical trials next week. But is it typical that Pfizer would have as many as four different vaccine candidates for a disease like COVID-19?
Albert Bourla 18:35
I think it is atypical to have so many in that short period of time. These are often called one of the greatest public health interventions of all times, and diseases that once the sun made then cripple entire populations like smallpox and polio, by distant memory, too many and unknown to younger generations and all this because of vaccines. But then also more recently I’ve seen vaccine innovation deliver vaccines against a cockle disease, rotavirus, HPV shingles, you name it. So now I think more than ever before the vaccine is being seen across the entire globe because now people can see because we have another pandemic, how effective vaccines can be one of the most final and reliable steps that can happen to address this crisis. And that’s why we jumped into it to do it that fast.
Gary Bisbee 19:30
We appreciate that. How long would you expect clinical trials for these vaccines or these types of vaccines to take Albert?
Albert Bourla 19:37
typically takes a very, very long time. And the only reason why we couldn’t bring it earlier, it is because you are doing things very atypical. First of all, we collaborate with the FDA in an expeditious manner. And we are submitting papers to them and they are giving us feedback in no time so that we can kill all this downtime that exists between during the trials and being able to start the next trial. Also, we’re going to do things in parallel. Usually, you will do phase one, and then you will the phase two user, then you’ll do phase three, and then you will start thinking about manufacturing, we are going to do it in parallel, we are going to invest at risk, we are going to spend hundreds of billions in reality in capital, equipment or materials, the effective vaccine won’t work like you will have to write it off, which is not how typically we will do things. But special circumstances are calling for special this season. We are moving and as I said, we hope that if the stars are aligned, we are lucky, we see that the four candidates are selected for many, many more, but we’re stuck testing in humans right now. But this one will be proven with high efficacy and safety so that we can be able to have millions of doses in this course. Not for everyone, but at least for some sensitive population, maybe healthcare workers to be on the phone blind, and then hundreds of millions in 2021.
Gary Bisbee 21:11
Wow, that’d be terrific. I’ve heard a number of people say that there was little chance that a vaccine could be approved even before the end of 2021. But keep up the great work because it sounds like you’re on a path that could produce a vaccine much earlier than that. What about manufacturing? How much of a constraint would that be? I could see that the vaccine would be developed, but then it would take a while to gear up manufacturing. How would you think about that, Albert?
Albert Bourla 21:42
No, I think manufacturing would be a significant bottleneck. And this is why companies like ours, that they can have the end to end capabilities from very early preclinical tests all the way to creating and keeping a finished product after the make to the patients, they can create much more value. And this is what we are doing right now. So we have already deployed our plans as to how and where we are going to manufacture vaccines if they are successful. We have been seeking production for other things to make sure what a great space and as I said, we started already getting materials, but we’ll be needing for something like that, or is not going to be one manufacturing site. There’s going to be multiple manufacturing sites that are age. And there will be all in the US but also here.
Gary Bisbee 22:38
Well, to wrap up, Albert, we really appreciate your thoughtful conversation today. And we wish you and Pfizer all the best as you play a leadership role in combating the Coronavirus challenge and we would love the opportunity to get back with you periodically and chat with you further and get your updates. We very much appreciate your being with us today. Thank you.
Albert Bourla 23:00
Thank you very much. It was great talking to you.
Gary Bisbee 23:02
Thank you, Albert. This episode of fireside chat is produced by Strafire please subscribe to Fireside Chat on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening right now. Be sure to rate and review fireside chat so we can continue to explore key issues with innovative and dynamic healthcare leaders. In addition to subscribing and rating, we have found that podcasts are known through word of mouth. We appreciate your spreading the word to friends or those who might be interested Fireside Chat is brought to you from our nation’s capital in Washington DC, where we explore the intersection of healthcare politics, financing, and delivery. For additional perspectives on health policy and leadership. Read my weekly blog Bisby’s brief. For questions and suggestions about fireside chat contact me through our website, fireside chat podcast dot com, or Gary at hm Academy dot com. Thanks for listening.
Transcribed by Otter