Over the past year, Pfizer has skyrocketed into the modern lexicon. Already one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer’s groundbreaking work on the COVID-19 vaccine has made it a household name.
Two of the people leading the charge to help vaccinate millions against COVID-19 joined President Sian Leah Beilock on April 8 for an online discussion about their work: Kathrin U. Jansen, senior vice president and head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla P’23.
In an illuminating conversation — part of the Insights: Powered by Barnard series put on by Beyond Barnard — the trio discussed the development process for the COVID-19 vaccine, the importance of equity in both the creation and distribution of vaccines, and what to do about vaccine hesitancy.
“It was very stressful,” said Jansen of the past year. “But, of course, there was a job to do, which was to develop the vaccine, and that helped to really focus on accomplishing this goal and put blinders on.”
Jansen’s impressive career spans 28 years of experience in vaccine research and development and includes the creation of Gardasil, the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine, and a vaccine to prevent pneumococcal diseases. At Pfizer, she led the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, the first-ever authorized vaccine that uses mRNA technology.
Bourla, in his more than 25 years with Pfizer, has been integral in the company’s mission to put patients first. He joined the organization in the Animal Health Science Division as the technical director for Greece and rose through the ranks, serving as Pfizer’s COO and then CEO. Albert notes that his training in veterinary medicine helped him to bring a new perspective to the company’s human health operations. In 2020, Albert was ranked as America’s top CEO in the pharmaceutical sector by Institutional Investor magazine.
Read key insights from both guests below:
On how Pfizer was able to accelerate the development of the COVID-19 vaccine:
Kathrin Jansen: “[Albert] gave us absolute free rein, and he said, ‘You can have everything that is in my power to give you, just make it happen.’ And that’s a completely different environment than we usually work under, because there’s always a lot of pull and push for resources. All of a sudden, we were faced with a very different environment that gave us all the resources we needed. And of course, we were all in the same boat. We saw the devastation around us. There was this fear and exasperation of what was to come, which motivated everyone to do whatever they needed to do, no matter how long that took, and how long the hours were during the day. So we all said, ‘We have to get it done, we will get it done, let’s go and do it.’”
On the challenges faced during the development of the vaccine:
Albert Bourla: “It was, as you can imagine, very bumpy. There were a lot of challenges and multiple successes that were immediately followed by failures — maybe three, four in a day. I remember that if a success was lasting more than one hour, then I would say that was a very great experience. [So it] was very challenging technically and also in terms of testing human ingenuity and testing possibilities that human work can open. It was very challenging also because it was happening in a very politically charged environment, and it was happening in the middle of a highly polarized election period, and the vaccine became the epicenter of the political debate. All of that created, in addition to a very scientifically challenging situation, a political minefield that we needed to navigate.”
Jansen: “We were building the airplane while we were flying it. Everything had to be done in parallel. We had very little experience with the pathogen and with the [mRNA] platform. We were really still learning and evaluating multiple candidates in the clinic. Folks were in parallel looking at many different approaches to fix [failures]. We had teleconferences like literally every hour, [asking], what do the data say, let’s try this, let’s try this. This happened in parallel on so many different levels.”
On the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies to engender trust in patients:
Bourla: “We have to take care of the bureaucracy, because bureaucracy and innovation is like oil and water. They don’t mix. [Pharmaceutical companies] were, before the pandemic, at the bottom of the reputation index. We were below the U.S. government. How can you be below the government in a reputation? It’s unbelievable. But we managed to do it. We did a lot of things to lose trust from people in the past. Reputation comes in drops, but you can lose it in buckets, so we had to collect it, drop-by-drop. In this pandemic, fortunately, we did the right things. We collaborated. I’m very proud of the way that everybody in this industry behaved. We need to earn the trust of people, we need to earn our value proposition to society every day with everything we do, and I hope that everybody will continue behaving in the way that everybody is expecting us to.”
On the importance of equity in vaccine distribution:
Bourla: “How can we make sure that the vaccine will reach everyone and not only the rich countries? We offered [the vaccine] to all in May or June. We traveled to all countries and told them that we are going to produce it, and we priced it in a way that reflects equity. Equity doesn’t mean that you gave everyone the same [price]. Equity means that you give more to those that need more. You can’t be a global health company and have inequities in the way that you are protecting people. Even for the rich countries, they need to understand that, in pandemics, you are as protected as your neighbor. The real solution is to make enough [doses] for all. So that’s investing in infrastructure, investing in supporting the suppliers of raw materials, and using your people’s ingenuity to do that in a way that could be, instead of five years, one and a half. By the end of the year, I think we’ll be able to provide vaccines to the world.”
On how the Pfizer vaccine is built to be responsive to virus variants:
Jansen: This virus is a crafty one, SARS-CoV-2. It's an RNA virus, and they have this habit of accumulating mutations rather quickly. We saw that very early in the pandemic, how variants quickly arose, and could actually take over whole populations. That was very concerning. We know that so far, the vaccine protection against those variants is solid. But we are all worried about the time when maybe one of those virus variants figures out how to evade our vaccine protection. We have built systems in place, and we're doing clinical studies right now, that will allow us to create a pathway by which we can very quickly, should we have to, switch from the current vaccine to a new one. The RNA platform is beautiful for that, because we don't have to change the formulation. It's relatively a simple engineering feat to just change the sequence of our vaccine antigen.
On combating vaccine hesitancy:
Bourla: “The worst thing that we can do is to challenge or shame or ridicule people [who] are afraid to take the vaccines. It’s very important to approach them and engage them, and it’s very important to explain to them the power of science, and how science has changed human history constantly to the positive over the years. And also explain — and this is what I found the most effective way to communicate — that the decision to vaccinate or not is not going to affect only your life. It’s going to affect the life of others. And most likely it’s going to affect the lives of the people you love the most, because they are the people that will hug you or kiss you, and they will be exposed because you are not protected. Speak about this with people. Everybody should be doing that, not only the educated people. Everybody should be speaking about the power of science.”
*Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Watch the full conversation between Jansen, Bourla, and Beilock below:
And for more from Pfizer, hear insights from the company’s chief patient officer, Dara Richardson-Heron ’85.