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10 Quick Questions for Pfizer Chairman-CEO

In new book ‘Moonshot,’ Albert Bourla shares the story behind the making of the COVID vaccine

Pfizer Chairman-CEO Albert Bourla stands in an office.

Joshua Jordan

In his new book, Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible, Pfizer Chairman-CEO Albert Bourla, the veterinarian turned biotech boss, who’s been with the drug manufacturer for more than 25 years, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s lifesaving journey to create the first COVID-19 vaccine.

 

The vaccine was a miracle that many were anxiously awaiting. Yet there was — and is — a lot of rejection of it. Were you expecting that?

I didn’t expect that much. Always with vaccines there are some people who do not believe, and there’s always a little bit of misinformation, but those were small percentages. Now there are way more. The higher the income and educational level, the lower the resistance. Also, it was politicized to a certain degree, particularly in America.

 

"Moonshot: Inside Pfizer's Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible" by Dr. Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO of Pfizer book cover.

Harper Business Books

What’s the next big vaccine Pfizer is working on?

One of the most important vaccines right now is for RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]. That is on the rise, and there are no vaccines against it. If we can also make some flu vaccines that can work better than 50 percent, that, also, I think will be big.

 

Is there a health challenge you are paying newfound attention to?

The field that is emerging, I would say, is aging. As people are living longer, it’s becoming more and more important to see how you can reverse the sequence of diseases but also your ability to operate independently and to have quality of life.

 

Who are your role models?

I was inspired by different people in different sectors. Politically, for example, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, because both of them were able to make tremendous changes and maintain peace rather than revenge. In business, Steve Jobs stood out for me in terms of the ability to bring transformative innovations to the world.

 

Does being the child of two Holocaust survivors affect who you are and how you live your life?

I am who I am because of that. It was always on the positive side—nothing is impossible, and life is miraculous. It gave me optimism.

 

In the book you said a glass of wine and a night of Netflix was how you relaxed. Still true? Latest binge?

Clearly, I was not reading philosophy after a long day. I am still doing it. I don’t think it’s Netflix, this one; it’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel [Amazon].

 

Do you keep a bucket list, professionally or personally?

I wouldn’t call it a bucket list. It is a vision and a goal. I know what I want to do in business. In my personal life, I want to see grandchildren, but I don’t see them coming anytime soon, unfortunately. [Bourla and his wife, Myriam, have 21-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.] 

 

What keeps you up at night? 

Clearly right now, the biggest concern for the world and for us is the viral mutations and how the virus evolves. It is extremely important for both the world and the patients themselves to stay ahead of the virus. You need to make choices as you are doing that. So what is always my worry is to make the right choice so that we can always stay ahead of it.

 

Is there a lesson to be learned from this pandemic, something good to come from all this bad?

The one that stands out is the power of science and the importance of a vibrant life science ecosystem. A lesson to do whatever to maintain this vibrancy, to let it grow and grow and grow. That’s a very important lesson. 

 

Former President Jimmy Carter writes the foreword to Moonshot. How did that come about?

We have worked with The Carter Center for many, many years. They have been very active in global health issues. One of the very specific projects that we were major contributors to was the effort to eradicate trachoma in Africa. We developed a very good relationship as a result. [Carter] was actually among the first ones to send me a letter to commend me for improving efforts on vaccines — before we had the results — when we announced we were doing it.

 

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