CNBC transcript: Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla speaks with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” today, discussing the issue of coronavirus vaccine hesitancy.
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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla On Vaccine Hesitancy: 'Trust Science'
MEG TIRRELL: That special guest of course is Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla Albert thanks for being with us this morning I mean this is a historic day. You've given hope to people of the United States just tell us how you're feeling today and how the people of Pfizer are feeling as you know you've given us this, this way out this light at the end of the tunnel.
ALBERT BOURLA: Oh, they are feeling very proud, they are feeling very proud for what they do every day but now it's the recognition is so overwhelming, everyone including me, I'm receiving notes in my mailbox from neighbors that they just don't want to come in because of COVID restrictions and social distancing but they are leaving their notes to say thank you Pfizer so it's a great moment for us.
TIRRELL: We were talking this morning about just the historic pace with which you and your partner Biontech develop this vaccine, with the genetic sequence, just being posted in January you shattered every record Did you expect back when you guys partnered up in March that you could do it this fast that by December, whatever day it is 14. These shots would be getting administered.
BOURLA: I was hoping I was aspiring, and I was driving everything so I can do it but I did it inside me I thought that it is a very stretch goal and this small possibility to make it back we made.
TIRRELL: Well, let's talk about what's happening right now your employees at your Kalamazoo plan are packing up this vaccine they are shipping out hundreds of 1000s millions of doses across the United States this week, I just tell us about this logistical challenge that is ahead, and really put it into context for us, for how much of a challenge it is for Pfizer You are a huge company you distribute lots of vaccines. How does this challenge compare.
BOURLA: We are preparing for about four months now. Starting from developing this famous box that our engineers that design and doing dry runs and preparing for this and that's, I'm very optimistic that things will go very well because extremely challenging to have a logistical operation but the plants, send vaccines at the same time to hundreds of countries of millions of doses, and the cold chain makes it more complicated but I think we have it and I'm sure, or I believe very confident, I'm very confident that things will go very smoothly.
TIRRELL: What tell us about your expectations for supply of course, you know, on November 9, when we had the huge news that your vaccine worked at 90% efficacy, you also reduce the supply forecast for this year to 50 million doses from 100 million It sounded like there was a bit of a bottleneck with raw materials. How confident are you in the supply chains being able to enable you to hit all your goals to get to 1.3 billion globally doses next year.
BOURLA: I'm optimistic about this always there are challenges but as I said, I think most of them have been overcome. I'm sure across the way there will be more bumps, but we are very used to it so right now we said 50 million for this year and most of it already has been manufactured. And we are allocating it next year will be 1.3 billion. And we are working to make much more than that. So, they 1.3 billions It is our commitment to the world, but we are working to make much more.
TIRRELL: Well can you bring us some clarity on the situation with the US government where you know Dr Gottlieb told us he was on your board that Pfizer had offered its second quarter allotment of doses to the US government a number of times before then of course other governments wanted to buy those doses. What is your relationship like with the Trump administration, you know, the president accused Pfizer of waiting until after the election to to present your data and you of course told us on November 9 there was no politics involved there but has that strained your relationship with the US government.
BOURLA: I hope not. We are not in the business of taking political sides, we are advocating for policies for innovation, but we're not taking political side so we are working with a simple inspiration and we will work equally with the next administration, and during the transition we are working with, with both. I think right now the US government has asked us for additional 100 million doses. And do we are in a position to provide them, but we are working the timeframe, we can provide a lot of that in the third quarter the US government wants it in the second quarter. We are working very collaboratively to try to find a solution and be able to allocate those 100 millions in the second quarter, if possible or a lot of them, not but we haven't signed an agreement we're working very collaboratively but not an agreement with the government. So, we need to wait.
TIRRELL: We've heard that operation warp speed you know has offered to help Pfizer to try to increase the manufacturing capacity or speed, your ability to deliver those doses to the US one way that's been suggested that that could be done would be to use the defense production act, not to force Pfizer to do anything but to obtain supplies raw materials, things like that, what how do you interpret the, or how would that affect Pfizer if the defense production act were used to help you.
BOURLA: I think it would be very positive and I think that it will allow us to maximize what we can do. We are asking them right now if you think you haven't, they haven't done it yet, but we are asking them and I hope that they will do it very soon because, particularly in some components, we are running at critical supply limitations. But I think they will do it so that would be no problem.
TIRRELL: And if the US government does use the Defense Production Act to help you, does that give them more control over the doses or anything that Pfizer does?
BOURLA: I think that right now we don't need excessive measures, but at least to get some orders in some of the suppliers, because you've noticed they were put into jeopardy, in general, the supply chain. But I don't think it is a combative relation right now that if you are going to take over our manufacturing capacity or not I think it's a collaborative and everybody understands that the US is a major priority but the remaining of the world also have a human lives that needs to be saved.
TIRRELL: Absolutely. Well, I want to ask you also I mean this is such a historic day that this vaccine is getting rolled out but it does not mark the end of you actually studying this vaccine and understanding it better. There are many important questions that we need the answers to including does the vaccine prevent infection completely so that you know once people get vaccinated they actually can stop wearing masks. Right now, you know, people who get the shot are still being recommended to wear masks, socially distance as much as possible, even though it will cut down on their chances of getting the disease by 95%. When will you know that this vaccine, if this vaccine prevents infection?
BOURLA: I believe in a few months we are trying to run a lot of analysis around that. There are some indications in animals, but it does so, but there is no proof in humans so the suggestion is that until we know for certain, but it, it does it or not, we should be wearing a mask. I think it is a very prudent one and everybody should follow it.
JOE KERNEN: Mr. Bourla, it's Joe Kernen. We had a kind of a theoretical discussion earlier about the state of vaccine development and you go back 50, 60 years, when you go back to the discovery of really of penicillin and it's also recent and, and the breakneck pace of technological advances that we've seen and I was just wondering whether, because of the testing, it's much more, it's much faster to make a vaccine now, to develop one but I would think there's a certain amount of time you still need just to test and that we're going to hit those limits of how quickly it can be done but then I thought again about the messenger RNA technology and the platform, and how quickly you could adjust to a change in, in the virus, a mutation in the virus, you could probably adjust very quickly to the sequence of, of what you were putting into a person and maybe it wouldn't take that long. Do you have a feeling for that, is it that powerful where we could do this very, very quickly if we did see a mutation?
BOURLA: It is very powerful and one of the reasons why we selected the mRNA technology together with our partner BioNTech was one of them, was this one that we can very quickly develop a vaccine and very quickly adapt it if there is a mutation out there. But you need to understand also that this technology didn't start yesterday. There are decades of investments and in similar technologies so that we will be able to move with the speed that we moved right now. So, it's not like we started from scratch. We knew a lot of things and we had developed and invested in that a lot before.
BECKY QUICK: Hey Albert, congratulations on what you all are rolling out today. This is, this is huge. We've been waiting for this and you've given us so much hope. You know, question about what comes next. I know that the FDA did sign off on this, this idea of kids as young as 16 getting this vaccine even though they're, they're not going to be in the first tranches of people who get it. I know that you're testing on younger kids and I just wonder when you think vaccines will start rolling out when you'll start seeing younger populations actually inoculated?
BOURLA: I think that, that will depend in every country based on their plans on how to use strategically the, the quantities that will be available to them. I believe in most of the countries that will take some time because I believe in most of the countries like in the US, they will have a certain priority, the first respondents in the healthcare system, then senior people living in, in nursing homes, then other senior people, so more vulnerable situations, people with comorbidities so until you come to healthy people, I think they will take some time for recommendation and that will be, I think, the most limited factor, not the approval of going into the younger ages that I believe will come when the full approval of the product will come if FDA approves it around between first and second quarter, around April.
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Albert, it's Andrew. Congratulations again and thank you on behalf of everybody across the globe. I did want to ask you though about this and just get your thoughts. As you know, South Africa and India are now petitioning the World Trade Organization to suspend effectively patent protection, intellectual property protections for things like this very vaccine. You have Doctors Without Borders have begun a social media campaign, talking about putting lives over profits. What do you tell them and how do you think about that?
BOURLA: I think they're around. I don't know in any instance that I believe has been an obstacle to develop it, actually IP is what kept this industry vibrant, so they were able in record time when society needed to develop the solutions. I, there is bottleneck right now which has to do with manufacturing capacity and it's not that it is manufacturing capacity of us, for example, in our case, it is manufacturing capacity globally. If there is someone who could do it, we already came into contact with them and we try to see how much they can produce for us, but it is highly specialized technology requires highly specialized equipment, highly specialized materials. And right now, the fastest way to be able to develop it is within our, within our house.
TIRRELL: That's interesting you you've sort of scoured the world for people who could help you increase supply even further and messenger RNA vaccines are brand new, yours is the first one to reach the market, but are you, do you expect that there are, you know, makers of vaccines of course there are huge makers of vaccines in India, for example, they are partnering with other companies like AstraZeneca like the Serum Institute of India, do you expect that perhaps as the technology is better understood, the manufacturing is better understood, you could find partners in other countries who could help you with this?
BOURLA: Yes, I'm speaking – I'm talking specifically about the RNA technology. Other technology there is much broader capacity available. And I'm sure in India, there is a high qualified capacity where they can do that. But there is nothing mRNA. mRNA is very highly specialized cutting-edge manufacturing processes that we actually developed them. They were not existing before. We had to develop the manufacturing processes, and we had to develop the process that from the lab, would scale up to make 1.3 billion doses. So, we have done 1.3 billion doses. We have done. So unfortunately, it does not exist other. We are trying to see if we can teach other people and if – we can have them order equipment. All of that, there is no stone that are leaving unturned right now. And this is the basis of what I said before, we have promised the world 1.3 billion doses but we are hoping, but we are trying hard to make much more than that. And that based on increasing our own and also finding patterns to do it. But right now, we don't – we aren't aware of anyone who can do it. And we looked a lot.
TIRRELL: I’m sure you have. And it’s a very complicated manufacturing process just getting the mRNA perfectly into the little lipid nanoparticle that enables you to deliver it to the body safely. I want to ask you, though, how do you make those decisions when you're getting orders from every government around the globe, when you're getting orders from nonprofit organizations? You know, the World Health Organization has this mechanism COVAX to provide vaccine to less developed countries, how do you make the decision who to sell the vaccine to, who gets it and when?
BOURLA: We went from the very early days and basically we spoke with every single government in the world, telling them that presenting the potential vaccine that we may have, and asking them to have an agreement so that we can allocate doses to them. So, basically, the agreements were coming as we were negotiating, we were trying to spread it, but eventually the orders were much more than what we could produce. So we try to give to all, and we try also to follow the order once an order of ordering. So once for example, order 100 million doses that were allocated to that. And then, upon order we allocated to them and then Europe ordered and we allocated to them and Israel and every other country in the world.
TIRRELL: And does price come into it at all or are you essentially trying to keep prices around the same for each government?
BOURLA: No, they are priced materially the same for high – we have a tiered pricing. So for governments of have developed countries like the U.S., Europe and Japan, etc. We have one tier of price, based on how many orders, the basis – how many doses they order, that was materially the same. Then for middle-income countries, we are offering much lower price. And then for low-income countries, some countries in Africa and other places, we are offering it not for profit. And it has nothing to do with the price how we allocate.
TIRRELL: I want to ask you also about data you're collecting on allergic reactions to the vaccine. Of course, there were reports from the UK some health care workers had those severe allergic reactions. This is, of course, now being monitored for as this gets rolled out in the U.S. What kind of studies is Pfizer planning to do on that to help understand better just the risk of that for people?
BOURLA: We did a lot of studies because you know it was 44,000 people we were trying to see if there are any allergic reactions. We didn't see now 44,000, assemble. I know that there were two in the UK and we haven't received the details, other than, but they were healthcare workers and they were carrying an EpiPen. So they were – they had a history of super sensitivity. But that was something that was extensively discussed at the FDA level, at the CDC level. And you know, normal precautions as for any vaccines for people that they have allergic reactions I think should be followed.
TIRRELL: I want to ask you also about a very important issue of vaccine hesitancy. Even folks who get most of their vaccines normally might be hesitant about these vaccines because they were developed so quickly. What do you tell those folks who might be saying, “well I'm going to wait a few months before I get this one.”?
BOURLA: I would tell them I wish that the situation was not so critical so that they can have the luxury to think about it. But this is as deadly as it could be right now with the amount of deaths or new cases that we are facing. So they need to think twice. This is a vaccine that was developed without cutting corners from a company with 171 years of credentials. This is a vaccine that was developed in the spotlight in the daylight, with all the data being put in servers. This is a vaccine that has been approved in the U.S. by two separate governmental agencies, the CDC and the FDA. After listening to two separate independent scientific bodies, one is the FDA and the other is the HCIP for the CDC. And this is a vaccine that is getting approved by all authorities in the world, so that should say something to them. And I repeat once more, that this choice not to vaccinate will not affect only your health or your life. Unfortunately, it will affect the lives of others and likely the lives of the people you love the most, who are the people that usually you are in contact with. So, I think, trust science.
TIRRELL: Well, and a question for you. I've heard you have not yet had your shot. When do you plan to get it?
BOURLA: As soon as I can, I will. The only sensitivity here, Meg, is that I don't want to have an example that I'm cutting the line. I'm 59 years old in good health, I'm not working in the front line. And so, my type is not recommended to get vaccination now. So that's one consideration. On the other hand, our company ran a lot of polls to see what would take people to believe it. And one of the highest ranking – even higher than if Joe Biden takes it, even higher than if the other presidents take it, is if the CEO of the company takes it. So with that in mind, I'm trying to find a way that I will get vaccinated despite if it is not my time just to demonstrate the confidence of the company. But we have made the decision that if we have to do that, we will not do it with our executives. So none of the executives and board members will cut the line. They will take it as their age and occupation type is the time for them to take it.
TIRRELL: Alright. Well, Albert Bourla, we'll wait for that news. We'll send a camera if you let us. Thanks so much for being here with us today on this historic day.
BOURLA: Thank you very, very much.