CEO Albert Bourla On Pfizer’s Involvement With Covid-19

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CNBC’s Meg Tirrell interviews Pfizer Chairman And CEO Albert Bourla From CNBC’s Healthy Returns Summit today

WHEN: Today, Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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Interview with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

MEG TIRRELL:  Well, Albert, thank you so much for joining us today in what is a weird way for us to be meeting.  The last time we saw each other was at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, and we hoped to be doing this in person, but it's great to see you virtually.

ALBERT BOURLA:  It's great to see you virtually, as well, Meg.

MEG TIRRELL:  So, I want to sort of set the stage for folks about where you're coming from, as Pfizer CEO.  You were with the company for two decades before you became the Chairman and CEO at the beginning of last year.  And already in the first year that you were CEO, you were taking steps to really transform the company, making a big acquisition of a cancer drugmaker for more than $10 billion, spinning off and creating a joint venture of your consumer health care group with GlaxoSmithKline, and, of course, merging your off-patent drug business with Mylan.

But then, of course, this year came COVID-19.  In my ten years of covering the drug industry, I've never seen anything like this in terms of the speed and the sheer volume of the efforts from the drug industry focused on one problem.  Tell us about those early days of decision making at Pfizer about whether to get involved with COVID-19 and how.  That was that like?

ALBERT BOURLA:  Well, it is like a great privilege, but at the same time it's a great responsibility, and you feel it on your shoulders.  When you know that you have the capabilities, particularly a company with the size of Pfizer that has end-to-end from early research all the way to manufacturing and distribution capabilities, and you know that you have the science, and you trust this technology, but you know that you need to deliver; and you know that your success or failure would mean human lives and a great impact in the global economy. So, if you are the CEO and you have to make these decisions, that feels very heavy on your shoulders, Meg.

MEG TIRRELL:  I'm sure.  So, you sort of went in stages in terms of, you know, jumping in as a company.  You laid out a five-point plan to get involved, you started looking through Pfizer's existing assets, and then of course you forged this partnership with BioNTech to develop a vaccine using an entirely new technology.  Tell us about the decision making that went into forging that partnership and choosing that technology to pursue this vaccine.

ALBERT BOURLA:  Yes, with BioNTech we have great collaboration for the last two years, and -- in the same technology.  We were not working together to develop a COVID, of course, vaccine the last few years; but we were working together to develop a flu vaccine.  And the reason is because, as you know, in the flu you have different strains every year.  And we believe that this technology, because it has tremendous speed in the way that you can go from a new strain all the way to manufacturing a vaccine, it would be ideal and would disrupt, actually, the flu market.

Now immediately, when we realized that COVID-19 is about to become pandemic and the size of this disease, we immediately jumped into it and we thought what can we offer as Pfizer.  And we looked at the vaccines, we looked at the therapies of new molecules, antivirals, and also we looked at therapies from our existing portfolio.

So BioNTech was the first one that came to mind, because the technology is ideal for something like that.  So immediately we jumped into place with BioNTech.  You have to know that we move with the speed of light.  Actually, this is the name of our project.  We did that without even having a contract, both parties.

We just agreed that that needs to be done, the world is waiting.  Before signing a contract, they started selling their strains and we started making investments, and then eventually we signed a letter of intent, and then only after we were already well into this collaboration, eventually we signed the contract between the two of us.  And I hope that the fact that -- the work will bring a solution.

MEG TIRRELL:  Tell us about these kinds of timelines that we're talking about.  When will we see the first data potentially?  You've already started human clinical trials in both Germany and the United States.

ALBERT BOURLA:  Yes.  First of all, the unique thing with our approach is not that it is mRNA, but there is another one that I hope also will be successful, because we need options.  The unique approach is that we are testing four different vaccines.  And those four different vaccines are combinations of two different antigens; one is the spike and one is what we call the RBD, which is the tip of the spike; and three different platforms. And we started already all of our programs.

They are going to go both in the U.S. and in Europe.  We are collecting data as we speak, in real time.  So we know that we are monitoring the safety of the doses, we are moving very fast into higher doses because the first ones worked well.  We are going to start having immunogenicity data as we speak, but I think conclusive data is to which one of the four would be the winner, if any would be the winner.

We will have it around June, July.  And from then we will scale up, let's say July or end of July, into one or two of the winners, into much bigger trials.  And then eventually we will come to September, where we could launch a much broader study of thousands of people.  I think that at the same time it's critical that we start manufacturing, because if we don't start manufacturing and we wait to see if any of the vaccines work, then we will not have time, we will not have doses available for the fall, that we believe will be crucial.

So if things go well and if we feel that the product is safe and efficacious, and if FDA and EMA feel, and other regulatory agencies, the same, we will be able to deliver millions of doses in the October time frame.  And then we are scaling up manufacturing to be able to deliver hundreds of millions in 2021.

MEG TIRRELL:  I want to ask you about that manufacturing capacity.  Reuters had a story on Friday saying that Pfizer was looking at outsourcing some of its other manufacturing to more of your manufacturing partners, to try to essentially clear capacity for the vaccine manufacturing.  Can you talk us through what kinds of efforts are already underway to be able to do this at such large scale so quickly?

ALBERT BOURLA:  Yes.  Obviously, Meg, when you want to manufacture hundreds of millions of doses in the network that is already very busy, you will have to do a few things right, and there are multiple things that we are doing right now, from ordering raw materials that will be needed to do something like that and making commitments to those third party manufacturers to develop them; also trying to change the production lines and reorganize our current manufacturing so that you can create capacity.  As part of that, we may transfer to other manufacturers some of our current manufacturing, making in-house, but it's much more simpler, so that we will be able to focus our efforts in manufacturing the potential vaccine.

MEG TIRRELL:  Well, I know that Pfizer also makes, through its Hospira unit, many of these essential drugs for critically patients, what are known as sterile injectables.  And some of these, because of COVID-19, but also because of manufacturing issues that Haspira has been dealing with for years, before Pfizer acquired it, are in shortage.  I was just talking with the specialist Erin Fox at Utah about some of the drugs that she's concerned about like fentanyl, midazolam, propofol, rocuronium.

These are drugs that are needed to support patients on ventilation with COVID-19.  As we're facing so many patients still in hospitals and ICU and a potential second wave in the fall, how is Pfizer making sure that you can manufacture enough of those drugs, as you undertake this huge challenge of simultaneously trying to manufacture this vaccine at such large scale?

ALBERT BOURLA:  Yes.  Meg, from day one we tried to set our priorities.  And, of course, like everybody else's, our first priority was the safety of our people.  But we understand also that we have an additional role to play, which is the safety of society.  So, in addition to the safety of our people, we set our second or third goal, making sure that we maintained the supply of our medicines to those who may need them, with an emphasis on products that we thought would be in high demand in ICUs or other hospital units that are related to COVID-19.  And the third priority was to make sure that we developed said solution.

We spoke a little bit about the vaccine, but when it comes to maintaining the supply chain, I need to tell you that we have one of the most sophisticated and complicated manufacturing networks in the world, and none of our manufacturing sites became nonoperational during the crisis.

We were able to maintain all sites operational.  And we had created from day one a list of what we thought would be 77 medicines that we manufacture that would be in critical supply from the hospitals, and we built actually new plants to build up incremental stocks and also to do what you were describing with the vaccine, to move to save production so we can create space to manufacture more of them.  I think we did very well so far.  We plan -- we are fully committed to maintain this level of rigor so that we'll be able to supply all medicines that are needed by whoever is in need.

MEG TIRRELL:  We're still hearing about these shortages of drugs and products needed for emergency use in hospitals, from Hospira; things as simple as sugar water, dextrose, or epinephrine.  Where are you, would you say, on fixing those problems from Hospira and alleviating these shortages that we've been observing for years?

ALBERT BOURLA:  Yeah, you're right that in the previous years we saw -- some of this from the Hospira manufacturing sites.  And during those two years, after we acquired the Hospira manufacturing sites, we have invested billions of dollars to modernize those facilities, and we continue doing that.  We have tangible, tangible progress in the number of shortages that we're experiencing right now.  Particularly, as I said, with the 77 medicines.  They were very sporadic, but in general we're able to supply those that need them.

MEG TIRRELL:  One of the things that Pfizer put out in your five-point plan originally to help with COVID-19 was to use your manufacturing capacity to help others manufacture drugs or vaccines if they were approved.  Of course, you're trying to do so much yourself at Pfizer, but now we're seeing that Remdesivir, Gilead's drug, has been cleared through the emergency use authorization pathway, and there doesn't seem to be enough of it to go around.  Is Pfizer thinking or looking into whether it can help there?

ALBERT BOURLA:  Absolutely.  I don't want to disclose specific discussions that are between us and Gilead, but I need to tell you that since we issued those five-points plan, more than 350 different companies have reached out to Pfizer asking our support.  And the support could be from manufacturing, as you mentioned, or to utilization of some of our intellectual property or some of our tests or some of our knowledge, or sometimes capital.  And we are -- the most promising of them we are providing any support we can.  This is not business as usual, Meg, and there are two competitors ahead of us right now:  The virus and time.  Nobody else is competitor.

MEG TIRRELL:  With that in mind, this not being business as usual, you know, one of the things that Gilead is encountering now are questions from both the patient advocacy community and then also from Wall Street, about where they're going to be pricing Remdesivir.  How do you think -- at this early stage, granted, you're thinking about later this year the potential of this vaccine being available potentially in some form or fashion, how do you think about pricing these things right now?

ALBERT BOURLA:  Yes.  I didn't even think about it, and we have never, so far, built any sales protections about any of the product we are doing for COVID-19, because this is not what is important right now.  From day one, what I said to our people was, we need to think beyond return on investment.  It's not a variable at all.  All we need to think it is, return on effort; if we could by comparison of effort, make a difference.  So the vaccine, for example, -- no idea if we'll be successful.

Now, very, very good chance, because of the reasons that I just explained.  So, once the product is available, I think we will discuss with our partner BioNTech how we are going to commercialize it.  But one thing is for certain, one:  There will be no American that cannot get it, or European that cannot get it, once it is available, and because of price.  That will be clearly the guideline.

MEG TIRRELL:  And, you know, in the little time we have left, I wonder how is this experience, do you think, changing the drug industry, how you all work together; and how is it, if it is, changing Pfizer?  Will we be seeing a different version of the company coming out of this?

ALBERT BOURLA:  Look, as you said, let me start with the industry.  I am very proud of the way that the industry has been responding.  I'm very proud that the way all my peers, companies and CEOs, they are working together with academia, with smaller biotechs, to make sure that we deliver a solution. Now, when it comes to Pfizer, as you had said before, Pfizer is transforming, and the last one year likely we are going through one of the largest transformations in such short period of time since, well, the establishment of the company 171 years back.  But this is not happening because I came on board.

This is only happening because the last decade, under the leadership of the previous CEO, Ian Read, that was part of his legacy, and Mikael Dolsten, who is currently the head of R&D and used to be the head of R&D, we have an effort to revitalize our innovative core, to built a new scientific machine out of Pfizer, and to make sure that we make the company nimble and ready to work.  In 2016, for example, when I was surrounding the innovative business in Pfizer, I divided the whole business into six units.  They are operating like six small biotechs:  The oncology biotech, the vaccines biotech, and as Pfizer we are just allocating resources and appointing the right people to lead those units. The COVID-19 for me is not just transforming Pfizer; but first of all, it's making great, great test capabilities.

I do feel that the world was expecting from a gigantic company like Pfizer, with that scale, to be able to move so fast and jump into the phase 1 clinical trial at the same time that it's manufacturing for a vaccine, just in weeks.  And that's, again, a new way of operating within Pfizer. When it comes to reputation - I want to close with that - yes, I hope that this crisis could reset the perception about the valuable position that the industry is bringing to society.  Look, Meg, last year Pfizer treated with our medicines almost 500 million people.  We touched the lives of 500 million families.

How many fathers or mothers with cancer, for example, will live long enough to see the graduation of the daughter or the wedding of the son because of us?  There is no other industry that can claim that it's bringing to humanity so much good.   The reputation was very bad.  I think now it's a great opportunity to be able to set it where it should be.  I know that reputation is earned in drops, but you can lose it in buckets.  And I hope that we will earn it drop after drop.  I don't want to declare any victory, but I think people right now across the globe, billions of people, hundreds of businesses -- actually, millions of businesses and hundreds of governments, are investing their hope for a solution to the pharma industry.  That should mean something.

MEG TIRRELL:  Well, Albert Bourla, we appreciate you being with us today, and we will be watching and eagerly awaiting updates on your efforts in COVID-19 and everything else.  Thanks again.

ALBERT BOURLA:  Thank you very much, Meg.