Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla On COVID Vaccination Policy

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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla On COVID Vaccination Policy

The following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) CEO Albert Bourla from the CNBC Evolve Global Summit, which took place today, Wednesday, June 16th. Video from the interview will be available at cnbc.com/evolve.

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Interview With Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Tyler, thank you, and Albert, thank you.  Thank you for being here.  And let me say on behalf of the world, thank you for the work that Pfizer and your team have done to get us to where we are today, and hopefully where we're going tomorrow.

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ALBERT BOURLA: Thank you, thank you very much, Andrew, very kind of you to say that.  Thank you.

SORKIN: It's very true.  Here is how I want to start the conversation.  The head of the IMF, who was part of this Evolve conference earlier this morning, said that the vaccination policy will be the most important thing, critical thing, to the global economy in the next year, and if not longer. I'm hoping we could sort of fly around the globe for a moment in terms of your perspective on where we really are, where we are here in the United States, but where we are really in Asia, where we are in parts of Africa, where we are in Europe, of course, and South America.  What does it look like from your vantage point at this moment?

BOURLA: At this moment I will give you some statistics that are related with all, let's say, vaccine in the world.  We have already hit the incredible milestone of manufacturing one billion doses.  That happened last week, one billion doses.  Now, not all of them are released because from the date of the manufacture, takes 4-6 weeks until we complete all the quality tests to make sure that the vaccine manufactured is ready to be released.  We have released so far 700, and I believe that we will release close to this billion by the end of this month.  So it's an incredible success. And we have written up contracts with more than 120 countries around the world, and we have already released product with more than 100 countries.  That's all over the world.  For example, in the European continent we have 58 countries; that's 27 of EU, plus all the other countries all the way to Russia.  In the African/Middle East, 18 countries; in the Americas, 13.  That includes the U.S. and 12 more.  In Australia, New Zealand, in the Pacific and Asia, we have more than 12 countries. So right now as far as countries I think we are sending good quantities to all.  Now, in the first half there is disproportional wait towards the developed countries rather than towards the developing countries.  And it was that the developing countries mostly had placed orders and secured -- their supplies were in that line. Unfortunately, many of the developing countries, they didn't bet on our vaccine, let's say.  They did plans with other vaccines that, unfortunately, they didn't work the way that they were planning.  So now everybody of course wants ours, and we are very welcome to give all. I believe that things are good.  I think in the second half -- I said already in the first half we would release approximately 1 billion.  In the second half of this year we will release 2 billion doses.  That's amazing, and I really am humbled with our engineers, the scientists in our manufacturing sites all over the world, that they are bringing this miracle to happen.  And so in the next half I expect that we will see disproportional waits toward the developing middle-income and low-income countries, rather than towards the developed, that they already received in the first-half significant doses.

SORKIN: If you were to get out a calendar and try to look out maybe a year from now, two years from now, three years from now, is there a moment at which you would say mission accomplished?

BOURLA: Yes. That's a very good question.  I think for me, when we have all the scientific understanding of what it takes to control this pandemic, this is when I would say mission accomplished.  And I'm not even sure if that will be the end from our perspective.  As you know, we are working to see what would be the best way to use these vaccines in controlling the pandemic, and this doesn't only -- let's say it's about manufacturing, a lot for the world, but also when we need booster doses.  What if a variant escapes the protection of our vaccine?  Do we need to have a specific new vaccine for this variant?  All of that are things that we are currently investigating, and I feel very comfortable that we will find good ways to control that.  So that, I think, will not be an issue.  Also working on treatment, because not everybody will be protected or not everybody will not end up with an infection.  So we're working in particular on an oral treatment so that will allow people to, if they are infected, to get their medicines at home, rather than going to the hospital.

SORKIN: Do you want to prognosticate, though, on when you think -- maybe if not mission accomplished, meaning that COVID is ridden from the world, but is under control in a meaningful way to the point where life returns everywhere to the way it was in 2019?

BOURLA: Yes.  I believe that speaking about the entirety of the world, that will take us to the end of next year, 2022, when I judge from the volumes that will be available to vaccinate the whole world, but also how long it will take for them to have successful vaccination contains. But I think the whole world will have enough volume by the end of 2022 to have vaccinated and protected everyone.  I'm not sure this will happen, for other reasons, and I think that by the end of this year the developed world also will be already in this situation.

SORKIN: Speak to the issue of variants.  It appears at the moment that your drug and a number of others have actually been very successful against, for example, the Delta variant, which I know is of concern in the United States and parts of Europe. How are you thinking about variants right now?

BOURLA: I'm thinking that we should be ready to address it, we should be prepared, but I'm not concerned.  I think that so far we have tested all variants.  The four most prominent are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, as you said.  And it will control not only against hospitalization but in our particular case, we have very, very good control also in neutralizing and reducing infections and reducing disease in general. So I feel very good about those variants.  However, the possibility of a new variant that will be able to escape the protection of our vaccine is there. So what do we do with this?  We have a very, very comprehensive surveillance system, everybody in the world.  We have people right now that are looking for variants as they emerge.  And once they emerge, we have a system that we are immediately testing our vaccine against those new variants.  And if one day we realize that one of them has escaped the protection of our vaccine, we have already in place a system that within 100 days we will be able to create an MRNA vaccine that is tailored towards this new variant and be able to scale up at big quantities. Just to give you a point here, we have already tested that system, although with a South African, which is the Beta variant.  Although our current vaccine works well against the South African variant -- actually, in South Africa there is over 100 percent effectiveness, we still developed a specialized vaccine that is tailored towards the Beta variant.  And we were able to do that within the 100 days that we set as a goal.  That gives us the confidence that if there is a real need for a new vaccine -- and that was a test, a pilot -- we would be able to do it.

SORKIN: A question about hindsight.  Hindsight is 20/20.  But you mentioned, and you're 100 percent right, that at the beginning of this pandemic countries around the world made some choices.  And I think the choices that they were making around buying or making orders for different vaccines was to effectively diversify their risk.  They were making bets on lots of different companies' efforts.  As a result in some cases, it has been a great success for those who bet on your vaccine and Moderna and others; and for some of the others, it's crated some more complication. What is the lesson of that today?  If you were to go back in time, obviously, and knew exactly what was going to happen, people would do it differently.  But is there a lesson embedded in all of this?

BOURLA: Look, I think people likely would make it differently; this is what they're telling me right now when we are discussing with governments around the world, they are asking to get into the schedule, which you try to do it for every government. I don't think that the problem with some of the countries was that they diversified their bets.  That would be good for everyone to have done at that stage, because nobody knew exactly how things would play out.  But this is, for example, what U.S. or Europe did. But a lot of the countries that they do not have the vaccine, they didn't diversify.  They did singular bets.  And they did singular bets, and some that they felt have -- they are more appealing.  And more appealing meant a lot of them were -- we are going to make it locally produced.  So a lot of them placed their bet that they would be better off if someone was transferring manufacturing there and they produced it locally. Some other sources felt that MRNA has never done a vaccine, so we are not going to place our bet on something that has never delivered a vaccine. So there are multiple reasons why they didn't select that.  And one of the key issues was that the tech transfers that were promised didn't work.  So eventually for the other vaccines that they placed the bet, they were not able to deliver the volumes produced in 100 places at once.

SORKIN: Albert, what gave you the confidence?  This is maybe a leadership question.  Because you made a big bet on behalf of the company in terms of financially, the brand, clearly, and I remember having conversations with you early on where you had genuine confidence that this was going to work.  I wonder how much of that was simply your belief in the science and how much of it is something about you and how you approach these things.

BOURLA: It's a good question, Andrew.  I think that in general, for most of us when we are in front of a very difficult decision because the data, they are not giving you a clear answer, you need to stick to some principles.  And that was the case, of course, with the vaccine.  So the principle was that we must do it.  If we won't be able to have a solution by the time that it was needed, then we will be facing way worse problems around the world than us losing $2 billion.  Right?  So when I saw it from that aspect, it was a very easy call.  We will go all in.  If we lose because we failed to produce a solution, the company will not go down.  It will be painful, but will not go down.  But on the other hand, the company will be remembered because we did the right thing.  And this is how I saw it, this is how the board saw it and this is why we embarked. Now, I had high level of confidence that was growing, as I could see data.  But I am the leader.  I had to make our people believe that we can have a solution.  It's not that they are naive or they don't know.  Actually, they knew more than me.  But when they could see the conviction that there was nothing that would stop us, that we will go all the way to the end, and I'm optimistic that we would be successful, that was a very positive energy for them. It's not that deep inside me I didn't have doubts.  I know how much concerns I had what if things would not work.  But they were not concerns what would happen with 2 billion that was invested.  It was concerns what would happen around the world if we're not successful.

SORKIN: When you think about the success of this MRNA vaccine and you think about the possibilities going forward in terms of other things that you can accomplish with it, how has it changed the chess board in front of you in terms of the bets that you think you can make and the time lines with which you think you can create solutions?

BOURLA: Yes, I think the MRNA has revealed some significant power, and I think it's just the first steps of the RNA technology.  We are speaking about the MRNA.  There are other forms that could become even more powerful and potent, and I think we could explore this technology in several areas. One of them, which is the lower, I think, hanging fruit, is clearly on the infectious disease, creating other vaccines.  Right now the world has some wonderful vaccines, that they are giving very, very high protection and they have very good safety margin.  But also there are diseases that either the current vaccinations are giving very low efficacy, or they are having serious safety issues, or we don't have a vaccine right now. And we have tried a lot, multiple companies, with the current technology.  Now that there's MRNA and several of us will try to find solutions to these mathematical needs, vaccines that they are not either successful, flu is one of these examples, or we do not have a vaccine.  Right now there are a lot of examples that we will try to use this technology to find solutions.  I'm optimistic that we will do better than with some other technologies.

SORKIN: How far are we away on the flu?  And you know, I've complained to you before.  Before the pandemic, I used to get the common cold.  It was unfortunately too common for me, so I'm hoping you're going -- I think the world would hope you come up with something for that.

BOURLA: Well, I hope the same.  You're right.  Flu right now depends on the year.  They could have an efficacy from all the way from 20 to 60 percent.  So typically it is on the 50s or lower.  And this is of course not a satisfactory solution.  It's like a flip of the coin if you're protected or not.  I think we deserve better.  And this is what we are trying to address.  We are already working very intensively on that, so I hope we will be able to see data if we are successful or not, of course it's not that easy, to do it this year.

SORKIN: Okay.  Two final questions.  News you can use.  So you're vaccinated, I'm vaccinated.  You can walk into a store now if you say you're vaccinated and others can walk into the store hopefully wearing a mask if they're not vaccinated. Are there places you will go with a mask on and places you will go without a mask on these days?

BOURLA: Look, first of all, I try to be a role model.  So, whatever the health authorities are recommending in the places that I am, I try to follow, because we need to lead by example. So -- and also myself, I am a little bit on the conservative side.  I want to be careful.  I'm vaccinated.  I don't want to encourage other people if they are not vaccinated to fake the system and don't wear a mask.  So sometimes I prefer to walk with my mask rather than not, to encourage others to do it.  But I think vaccinated people, as CDC has said, they are having very good protection.

SORKIN: Right.  And where do you land on the great debate among leaders around the country and around the world about mandating vaccination at work.  Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and others have done it.  And I'm curious what you think.  I know early on people were worried about mandates because they thought it could backfire, it could have the opposite effect.  But is there a moment at which you think it may be the right answer?

BOURLA: You know, it's a very difficult question.  There are many pros and cons.  And still I am that we need to have the appeal of the people to do it rather than have, let's say, a mandatory policy.  That being said, I know that we do have mandatory policies.  And my kids couldn't go to their school if they wouldn't have a specific vaccination schedule right now, and that was for many years. So I'm still discussing with a lot of CEOs how -- what is the best way to do with our own employees.

SORKIN: And so your employees, there is no mandate at the moment?

BOURLA: There is no mandate.  There is -- we facilitate a lot because we have access, of course, to the vaccine.  We started offering vaccination to them, and a lot of them are doing it.  So it's really not -- it's overwhelmingly positive, they are getting the vaccine.

SORKIN: Albert, we've got to leave it there.  Let me thank you for the conversation.  Let me again thank you on behalf of all of us who have benefited from the work that you and your team have done for the world.  Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you in person very, very soon.

BOURLA: You're vaccinated, I'm vaccinated.  I'm sure that that will not be long before we meet.

SORKIN: We'll get together.

BOURLA: Thank you.

SORKIN: You bet.  Thank you again.

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Jacob Wolinsky is the founder of ValueWalk.com, a popular value investing and hedge fund focused investment website. Jacob worked as an equity analyst first at a micro-cap focused private equity firm, followed by a stint at a smid cap focused research shop. Jacob lives with his wife and four kids in Passaic NJ. - Email: jacob(at)valuewalk.com - Twitter username: JacobWolinsky - Full Disclosure: I do not purchase any equities anymore to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest and because at times I may receive grey areas of insider information. I have a few existing holdings from years ago, but I have sold off most of the equities and now only purchase mutual funds and some ETFs. I also own a few grams of Gold and Silver

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