The COVID-19 pandemic caused nearly 4 million deaths in mid-June, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, but the effects of the virus are being mitigated thanks to vaccines made available in record time. One such vaccine is the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which is 98% effective after two doses.
Dr. Albert Bourla
Pfizer CEO and veterinarian Dr. Albert Bourla was the speaker at the 136th annual opening ceremony of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, practically held on May 17th.
Dr. Andrew Hoffman, Dean of Penn Vet, noted in his opening remarks that the core technology used in the development of the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines was developed by two UPenn scientists: Drew Weissman, MD , and Katalin Karikó, PhD.
“They found a way to chemically modify the RNA and encapsulate it in liquid nanoparticles,” explained Dr. Hoffman. “This technology enabled the safe, functional delivery of messenger RNA that codes for the coronavirus spike proteins, which resulted in a robust immune response against the virus in animals.
We couldn’t focus on what the past told us and we couldn’t take no for an answer.
Dr. Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, on the development of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
“In early November 2020, we learned that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which uses Karikó and Weissman RNA technology, is safe and effective in humans.”
Shortly thereafter, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval to the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, and later the Moderna vaccine.
In June, the Biden government announced it would buy half a billion doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine to donate to the world.
Create a miracle
Dr. Bourla said the development of the COVID-19 vaccine was a story of incredible scientific achievement, as well as a story of broader knowledge that applies to many aspects of life.
Lesson one: people often have no idea what they can achieve. Like Dr. Bourla explained that vaccine development typically takes 10 years. Given the urgency of the pandemic, the Pfizer team accelerated that schedule, initially developing plans that would have provided study results in 15 months and enabled Pfizer to produce several dozen million doses by the second half of 2021.
“These plans would break all previous records, but they just weren’t good enough. We had to deliver the vaccine even faster and produce significantly more doses, ”said Dr. Bourla.
“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, and we couldn’t take no for an answer. Instead, we had to find out what science tells us we can do.
“In the end, the team came back with a plan that would allow us to deliver the vaccine in about nine months and that will get us ready to deliver more than 2.5 billion doses in total by the end of 2021.
“Thinking big looks like this.”
Lesson 2: Happiness never comes to the unprepared. Pfizer worked for years to enable the company to rapidly develop an mRNA vaccine.
It’s a lesson Dr. Bourla as a veterinary student working with a team of researchers on lamb embryo transfer. After several failures, the procedure was a success.
“That experience taught me not to be afraid of failure,” he said. “In science, failure comes with territory. In vaccine research, for example, only one in ten clinical candidates ever makes it into the world. In science, mistakes don’t throw us back – they actually move us forward. “
Dr. Bourla’s story
Dr. Bourla graduated from the Veterinary Faculty of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece with a PhD in Biotechnology of Reproduction. He joined Pfizer in 1993 in the former Animal Health Division as Technical Director for Greece.
“I chose veterinary school because I love animals and was fascinated by the secrets of life. I still do and still am, ”said Dr. Bourla in his recorded address.
He held increasing responsibility positions within the Animal Health Division across Europe before moving to Pfizer’s global headquarters in New York in 2001. From there, Dr. Bourla held a number of senior positions within the division including US Group Marketing Director from 2001-04, Vice President of Business Development and New Product Marketing from 2004-06, and Area President for Europe, Africa and the Middle East from 2006-09. In 2009 he took on additional responsibility 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. He led the development and implementation of strategies and tactics related to the Pfizer patent-free portfolio. Then, in 2012, Pfizer announced that it was spinning off its Animal Health business. Zoetis became a fully independent company in February 2013.
From 2014 to 2016, Dr. Bourla Group President of Global Vaccines, Oncology, and Consumer Health Care, Pfizer. According to his company biography, he was instrumental in building a strong and competitive position in oncology and in building the company’s leadership position in vaccines. He then served as Group President of Pfizer Innovative Health from February 2016 to December 2017, which comprised the Consumer Health Care, Inflammation and Immunology, Internal Medicine, Oncology, Rare Diseases and Vaccines businesses. He also founded the Patient and Health Impact Group, dedicated to developing solutions to improve patient access to Pfizer medicines, demonstrate the value of those medicines, and ensure broader innovation in business models.
Before Dr. Bourla took over as CEO in January 2019, he was Chief Operating Officer of the biopharmaceutical giant from 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 a veterinary degree during a pandemic, describing the achievement as “no less than fantastic”.
“Your hard work and dedication have resulted in your being part of what I believe to be the most elite, important and perhaps underrated brotherhoods and sororities in the world.”
Dr. Bourla told graduates to remember, “Our profession has made a lasting, positive social impact. What we do matters and makes our planet better. We make a difference, and that cannot be said of all professions. “
He concluded with a quote attributed to a Greek compatriot and namesake of his university, Aristotle: “Our problem is not that we aim too high and miss. Our problem is that we aim and hit too low. “