Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla joined Martha Brennan with CBS Face the Nation. An interesting character, he’s not just the standard “company man.” The chief declared that in their “base case,” they have “more than a 60% chance” to know whether the experimental vaccine works or not by the end of October. This of course, the CEO reminds, doesn’t mean that it actually works, only that they will know if it works. Bourla reports that given the company is already nearing the 30,000 recruitment mark, the recent expansion to 44,000 for the Phase 3 trial, thanks to high confidence about safety, will involve 16 to 18 year old youth as well as those with “Special conditions and chronic conditions” such as HIV, as well as a more diversified volunteer base. The CEO expresses no concern about the sponsor’s ability to recruit minorities and emphasized that even with over $1 billion at risk (Pfizer opted for no Operation Warp Speed funds), he said it was important to “liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy.” A CEO that’s cool, confident and collected, some could say with a calmly powerful presence, perhaps the speculation by some top analysts that the Pfizer/BioNTech pair could be in the lead for the first successful vaccine has merit—or Mr. Bourla could be the ultimate poker player. But in the big stakes of science and publicly traded pharmaceutical companies, the former is probably more likely than the latter.
A CEO Confident on Diversity
When asked about the need to further diversify the volunteer base, namely African American and Hispanic, for example, Pfizer’s CEO emphasized that actually worldwide the BNT162 study is actually 60% Caucasian and about 40% other minorities. He emphasized that 44% are elderly but he did comment that “of course” they will try to increase Black and Latino participation in the United States. When asked why it is harder to recruit Blacks and Latinos in the United States, Bourla responded that it wasn’t any more difficult than recruiting other people; he also emphasized that their vaccine sites are located in places where the vaccine is active. While Dr. Bourla possibly minimizes the challenges other sponsors may be having, he clearly doesn’t exhibit any concern about this study’s effort to diversity patient participation in America.
On ‘Liberating Scientists’
The Pfizer and BioNTech pair took no federal money from the U.S. government pocketbook—one of the few to take this solo path. Although, if the product doesn’t work, Dr. Bourla and Pizer are out over $1 billion; he emphasized to Ms. Brennan that he wanted to “liberate out scientists from any bureaucracy.” Dr. Bourla continued that “when you get money from someone, that always comes with strings.” Whether its continuous status updates or reports down to granular micromanaging, Bourla wanted none of that.
Bourla is a confident character. Pfizer put serious skin in the game, placing their own money in partnership with German BioNTech. TrialSite reported recently that top SVB Leerink life sciences analyst Daina Graybosch recently communicated to investors that Pfizer/BioNTech has identified a fifth vaccine candidate (BNT162b3) under the mRNA-based portfolio known as BNT162. The company kept quiet about this news, rather opting to focus on the progress of BNT162b2.
Could Pfizer be playing both a short and long game, racing to be first but then following up with a “Vaccine 2.0” for the investigational next generation product that incorporates rapidly accumulating knowledge and experience from Vaccine 1.0? Mr. Bourla certainly appears cool, confident and collected as they move forward.
A Company Man but Free Thinking
Bourla represents the company through and through but also exhibits a certain independence from all. A company man, he has been with Pfizer for 27 years. Having come with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine as well as a PhD in Biotechnology of Reproduction from the Veterinary School of Aristotle University, he has held many different management positions within Pfizer. In 2020, he was ranked as America’s top CEO in the Pharmaceuticals sector by Institutional Investor magazine.