tv Pfizer CEO on COVID-19 Pandemic Vaccines CSPAN November 9, 2021 8:07pm-9:01pm EST
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with the ceo of pfizer on covid-19 vaccine development efforts. the atlantic council is the host of this 50 minute event. >> hello, and welcome. i am the president and ceo of atlantic council. it is my honor to welcome you to this special edition of the atlantic council front page. our global live ideas platform for global leaders. today, we will talk with dr. albert boula, ceo and chairman of pfizer, who tomorrow will receive the atlantic council's highest honor for business leaders. the 2021 atlantic council distinguished business leadership award. we will be recognizing his lifetime of accomplishment, but in particular, his and his company's historic role in developing the covid-19 vaccine. the fastest approved vaccine in history, and thus his ongoing work to curb the world's forced pandemic in a century. -- help curb the world's forced
pandemic in a century. -- worst pandemic in a century. as of this week, covid-19 has cost some 5 million individuals their lives globally and 750,000 in the new united states. that said, his work and pfizer's work quite literally has saved millions of lives through the production and global distribution of the pfizer-biontech vaccine. so it is my honor to host this discussion. before he receives his award tomorrow evening at the andrew mellon auditorium in washington, d.c., at an event that mark -- that marks the atlantic council's 60th anniversary. we are joined on this platform by dr. bourla's partners in creating this extraordinary vaccine, the cofounders of the german company, biontech.
together, pfizer and biontech achieved one of the great scientific breakthroughs in history, with its groundbreaking messenger mrna vaccine. messenger are -- rna technology. it is hard to imagine a more dramatic transatlantic success story than this one. born of a science and partnership that predated the pandemic we will get to that in a moment. but first, dr. borla, i welcome you to atlantic council from page. >> thank you very much. >> you are a greek born american. you called yourself greek i birth and american by choice. son of holocaust survivors from greece. as i understand it there were 50,000 greek jews before world war ii and now only 2000 survived.
. you have written this upbringing has shaped you. i wonder if you can talk about what it is your parents went through and how these origins and history shaped who you are today. >> i am happy to say what a great honor for me to be awarded with such a distinct honor from your organization. i am really humbled. you are right. from 50,000 jews only 2000 survived. among those 2000 where my father and mother. they met after the holocaust and they decided to build a life together and then they had me. my parents talked their to us a lot about
their experiences. a lot of survivors avoided talking to their kids because it was painful to remember those stories but our parents did. the thing that they always did was they never spoke less about pain. they never spoke about revenge. they never talked about we must pay back those that this. the moral of the stories was that nothing is impossible. we almost died and we survived and look what we have now, you, our family. i think this is where stems my personality. this belief that it is never the
end before it is the end and you can always do things to change your fate. i am grateful to them for that. >> thank you for that. there is a harrowing story you have talked about where your mother narrowly escapes a firing squad. without your parents' survival we would not be sitting here. thank you for sharing that story. you also said your jewish upbringing coming from a small country on the world stage, being of a religious minority taught you to fight for what you believe is right and never give up. and were there elements of that in the vaccine fight as well? >> definitely so. the personality is built in the early days of life and follows them wherever they go. in greece, you had to -- you are
very different from everybody else. coming to america with a very thick accent, trying to be able to prove yourself also requires to fight for what you believe is right. that also followed me on the way to the covid vaccine. the teams worked very hard to develop in record time such success. this felt big. they did not try to do eight years, seven years of development. they tried to do six months development.
there was a very deep instilled sense of urgency. this was going to affect the lives and the future of the world. that gives you tremendous drive. this is what everyone in pfizer and biontech needed. >> it was the fastest development in history, did i get that right? >> absolutely. >> before we go on talking about the vaccine one more question of your pre-covid pandemic life. could you share for us -- we all have formative experiences in our lives. could you share with us in your life of science -- you have said as well and i quote, "my father had two dreams, one that i would
become a scientist and two that i would marry a sweet jewish girl. he lived long enough to see both dreams come true." share with us any informative experience you had before the onset of the pandemic. >> i am a veterinarian by educational background. i got a phd in biomedical reproduction. pfizer in greece was recruiting at the time and they reached out to me and offered me a good position in the animal health group. in the beginning i was very reluctant to take but they convinced me to do it. it was always my idea it would be a sabbatical. i would take a small break, come back to what i really love doing
which was researching in academia. but i didn't. i fell in love with the company and what they are doing. i fell in love with the private sector because i saw how dynamic it is and how you can make a difference. i stayed -- so far i am 28 years with the company and i stayed three in greece. the other 205i spent internationally. the job was enough. to join pfizer -- [indiscernible] -- we lived in eight different cities. that was an interesting experience. most of them our kids had to follow. i think that was the biggest gift. they were exposed to different
cultures and civilizations to understand that diversity is important and understand that the world is not how it looks in new york or texas or atlanta. the world is very different in every single corner. i think that was very important. and here we are. everything can be done from humble beginnings may be all the way to the top. when our board called me into the boardroom to announce they have elected me as ceo the comment they made was, only in america. this is the place you can really make it to the top irrelevant what your are beginnings. >> i love that story. living in semi-different countries, starting something you thought was a sabbatical and became a life mission that ended in this amazing vaccine.
you have seen in these 28 years of pfizer the company people. you have seen the science evolve -- company evolve. you have seen the science evolve. what prepared pfizer and biontech for this moment in history and this vaccine development? >> i think pfizer was a tremendous success in the 1990's but then there was a period it was not as successful. when my predecessor took over in 2010, 2011 he found a company that really needed to make serious changes. and they did. he drove significant change.
before we were spread thin in different areas. usually you are not good in any, you are mediocre in all. we were able to become the best. we consolidated our research centers, moved them to where science is happening. we did tremendous changes in the way our team is working. all of that under my predecessor. when i took over in 2019 i found an excellent infrastructure. it is because of the work of my predecessor. i focus to company on the science. -- focused the company on the science.
[indiscernible] we increased the digital budget and we reduced other budgets in the company. [indiscernible] when covid happened in 2020 i think a lot of us had advanced. we were able to utilize a very significant shift in our culture to be able to do things that seemed to be impossible. this exactly what happened. we were preparing for two years
and we found ourselves in the right set of mind so we can develop a breakthrough in record time. >> i love this story. giving your predecessor the credit for setting up the company for the changes you took on, particularly in the focus on the science. two questions. one of them is give us a little bit of a feeling of when you saw covid-19 was going to be the challenge that it became. and what did you move to take it on? i think the second part of the question -- not everyone watching is a scientist. they hear mrna, they hear messenger mrna but if i am not mistaken, mrna vaccines
had never been used for clinical use before. i would love you to talk about what you spotted early on, how you moved things, but the role mrna plays during this time. >> in general, myself and our entire team were thinking covid is an issue that concerns scientists. . we were very concerned -- [indiscernible] we were worried about our people maintaining their jobs read we set up a task force that was following very closely and what do we do next? in february it started becoming clear to me this might go outside of time.
i went two days before this meeting and it was canceled because of covid. that was, for me, an alarm went off. i realized that are serious. i took a plane and i wrote down the priorities i felt that the company would have an the first was -- i think i have this piece of paper -- we have to protect the safety of our people. the second was we need to make sure we maintain the supply of critical medicines to people. hospitals were overwhelmed and we were wanting to be a supplier. i was thinking how can we maintain reserves?
[indiscernible] number three is we need to develop a vaccine. when we came back i asked our team to develop a vaccine. they said they wanted to use mrna technology. i was puzzled when they told me. i was familiar with mrna because we had hired people in 2015 that were specialized in mrna but we had an agreement with biontech that was signed in 2018 to develop a flu vaccine by using this technology. i knew that there was not a single mrna vaccine out there.
we will be the first vaccine ever with mrna. [indiscernible] in this meeting they convinced me to take that risk. i said, i need to talk to garcia. that was the first time that we spoke on the phone. it was, i think, love at first sight and it was the beginning of a tremendous relationship, cooperation between the two companies and me and him in person. later i met his wonderful wife.
i never, ever regretted we made this highly risky decision and i am happy we did. >> i am very excited tomorrow evening we are going to recognize all three of you, and by association your company's. ies. can you explain how the mrna works differently? not all the covid vaccines are mrna. how does it work differently and why was it ready at this point if it had not been used in clinical use before? >> the vaccines, you are introducing a part of the virus into your body so that your body will create antibodies, recognize the virus as an
enemy. this will then trigger an immune response. your body is ready with antibodies so it can easily win the battle. the mrna technology is trying to reverse this. instead of introducing a piece of the virus, you are sending a message to your cells through messenger mrna so they will use a similar protein. once you do that your body will recognize that something is not normal that should be here so it will develop antibodies. and then the same way yourself
will be protected when the real virus comes. you do not even put any piece of the virus into you. we are putting a very small message of rna that will stay if you days in your body and disappear. but they will send a signal to your cells to produce this protein. it was discovered 20 years ago. [indiscernible] biontech was one of the partners in doing this study. eventually the first vaccine we were able to do is this that we developed. >> it is just a wonderful story of how history unfolds. what other doors might this mrna
vaccine open? i have heard there is even a path regarding cancer from this vaccine. could you share with us what other doors you think this might open for you and science in general? >> i think cancer was the first thing we tried to tackle with the mrna. the idea is that you are training your body to attack your own tumors. they identify the tumor and they send a message to the messenger mrna to start attacking this tumor. it is a very big field. another field is infectious diseases. ourselves we are working on the flu vaccine since 2018.
that could be the next generation for vaccine mrna. we are creating vaccines for other infectious diseases. there is a third which is for people that are born with a mistake in their dna code. there are a lot of rare diseases that are happening to people because somewhere there is a mistake in their dna. those people have to live without until the end of their life and their life does not last long because of this mistake. there are a lot of technologies that are trying to use jean editing -- gene editing. they are using technology to repair the mistake in your dna. these are just three of the
cutting edge technologies right now. >> what is most promising among those? are we closer to something regarding cancer mrna or where do you see the most promise over the short and medium-term? >> i hope so. we do not have success yet. which one is the most promising? i would say infectious diseases. now we have good proof that this works to attack foreign invaders, viruses or other. i think that is the most likely to bring fruits. >> now let's talk about the period of time from march 20 to
today. it must have been an incredible moment of intensity. you have written about the hours your team has put in, the time lost from families and weekends. as you went through this what struck you most positively and negatively? what do you think you have learned from this intensive period which is still ongoing? >> let me say two things. first, the one that stands out for me is, when it comes to leadership, people do not know what they cannick cannot do. if anything they have a severe tendency to underestimate what they cannot do. if people are given resources, you force them to think big, they will surprise you with what type of solutions to any program
they will bring. [indiscernible] if there is something i regret, for example, we went through a lot of pressure and i had to put a lot of pressure. i don't regret that i did that because i know without that we would not be here and i know my people don't mind but i put a lot of pressure to them. they knew this was what was needed. but i lost my temper. that i regret. the lesson for me is that the leader needs to do whatever he or she can not to come in a position of stress. you can put pressure but you
should never make people feel unhappy and uncomfortable. i learn and i try to do less of it. >> that is an incredible lesson i think for every ceo, maybe every political leader across the world. the more one is under pressure the harder it is to stay to that rule. let's stay on that. you are not a politician. but you have had to deal with a lot of politics in the last 18 months. what have you learned about geopolitics, major power politics? what have you learned about domestic politics? you have been through two different presidents. you have also learned about fake news during this time. talk to me about what you have learned about geopolitics, domestic politics and fake news.
>> it was a crash course for me and i think i learned enough to have a degree in political science is now. i tried to protect the company from being involved in politics. it was impossible because there was so much polarization. covid was at the epicenter of the debate. the development of the vaccine became part of the debate which should not be discussed in political terms. the way i saw it was i have to create pressure to our people but i had to protect our people from internal bureaucracy, external bureaucracy so that they can work.
i had to absorb the political pressures rather than having them. they should only have to worry about the lab and their patients. i had to do that and it was not always easy but eventually -- [indiscernible] -- we realized they are human beings. they tried to do the best and when you interact with them if you realize they have family, and kids in their own concerns. it was a very humbling experience to be able to do that
. [indiscernible] we had evenings and nights trying to find solutions to their problems. that was also very humbling. >> you shared a little bit in the past about direct phone calls from the president of the united states, direct communication. how do you in a position like your own deal without? obviously there is a lot of pressure on them as well as human beings. >> yes, at the time it was president trump and i had met president trump before the pandemic. we had discussed things but the pandemic and vaccine were high on his agenda. he would talk to me to ask about how we are doing and if there is anything we can do to accelerate it.
we are moving full speed ourselves and he trusted me to let my people work. that is how we did it. [indiscernible] it had nothing to do with politics. >> thank you for that. just sharing with our viewers tomorrow evening when you receive the award before you perceive yours the president of the european commission will receive the distinguished international leaders award but also introduce you for your award. that shows the sort of respect that can be shared between a political leader and a business leader. >> i can tell you the president is one of the most knowledgeable leaders about the disease and technology. i was very impressed.
i love our discussions. we are going really to the bottom of what would be the best way to approach. because there were so many under so much stress it was an experience for both leaders. me from a small company, compared to what he is doing, clearly a bigger responsibility. i respect highly. >> such an important message to understand the humanity behind these very stressful and important jobs. there was fake news during this time about the vaccines and conspiracy theories. how did you deal at that and how did you navigate that? where do you feel the primary
source of this fake news was? how damaging was this to us? >> i am afraid it was quite a lot damaging. there was particular disaster targeted by dark organizations. we are getting briefings from cia, fbi of attacks that might happen to us. cyberattack signing but also spread of misinformation. than a people that are vaccinated, there are people that are skeptical and both of them are afraid. those getting the vaccine, they are afraid of the disease and they believe because people are not getting vaccinated they are increasing risk to them.
they are mad they do not get the vaccine. those who don't get the vaccine are afraid of the vaccine and mad at people pressing them to get it. those i understand. they are very good people. they are decent people. they have a fear and it is understandable and they don't want to take chances. but there is a very small part of professionals which they circulate, on purpose, misinformation so they will mislead those that have concerns. they are criminals. they literally cost millions of lives. >> and should be treated as criminals as well those who have done that. you have also come to see close up -- we did not know them before the inequities and global healthcare system -- which also
has influence on recovering from covid-19. have you learned anything during this time about how one can overcome them and how did you have to work within them to navigate this period? >> could you repeat the question? >> how you view the global healthcare system. >> that was a very, very big issue. i realized this polarization, for example, when the vaccine would become available. to make sure the vaccine is available there are two things we have to do. the first price would not become an obstacle to any country. that was easy to result. the cost of a take away meal in
the developed world. but when we are moving through the middle income countries we talked half of price. when we go to the low income countries we give them a not-for-profit price. that was easy. the second thing is enough vaccines for all. it is clear when you start from scratch the first month will have fewer doses than the months after. [indiscernible] most of them were coming from high income countries. the european union, the u.s., but the small and -- [indiscernible] -- i sent letters to change
their position. they did do it most of them and they did not do it because they placed -- from china, russia. when the vaccine became successful and others had difficulty delivering the quantity they promised they came back to us. the problem was the first few months the doses were already allocated. i could not just tell them, i am not giving it to you anymore. the solution was to build more. this is where we invested. from the billions of doses we were expecting to produce through the end of 2020 we raised it up to 3 billion.
i'm happy to tell you by the end of this year which is in a month and a half we will have produced 3 billion doses. from there more than one billion doses, 1.2 billion, will go to middle and low income countries. the doses that follow i think everyone will have enough doses because we are producing 4 billion for next year and that will be enough for basically everyone who wants to get vaccinated. >> 3 billion doses and one billion for low and middle income countries. part of this was an agreement with the u.s. government where you provided at cost and they are providing to certain countries at no cost is that right? >> that is absolutely right. this is the biggest agreement.
it is one billion doses. the u.s. government is buying those doses from us at cost and then they are giving those doses free of charge, completely free of charge, to other countries. the agreement with the u.s. government is they can give it to whoever they want as long as they belong to the list of the 92 of the poorest countries in the world. they cannot give it this is what they are doing, anything that i know that i can see, they're just giving the doses without asking anything back. >> what a remarkable story. this is a question on a lot of people's minds, where do we stand today? masks, jabs, testing kits, are these going to become a more
permanent part of our lives or is there an end to what we're going through as we see different variants rise up here and there and new need for response? >> i believe we'll see an end. we believe that our lives will go back to the way that we knew before. of course, there will be changes because of things that we learn. we'll be changing the way that people work now that we know that it works that well. i think we will reach the level, the normal waves of social lives to go to restaurant, you don't have to wear masks. to do that, we need to vaccinate with the doses and the vast majority of political and if we do that, we will have herd immunity and reduce the virus all over the world.
the only thing that stands between the new way of life and the current way of life, frankly is people afraid to do the vaccines and they create, this is not only to them, unfortunately, they are going to affect the lives of others and frankly the lives of the people they love the most because they are the people, their kids. >> this is not a political issue left or right, this is a science issue. and -- >> for god sake, it is so big mistake and such a big disservice to soto decide something like that, be a political statement if you wear a mask or not, if you're democratic or not, you are hard koren. that's ridiculous. should not be like that. it was the very [indiscernible]. >> is there going to be an annual vaccine for covid-19, a
booster shot enough right now, can you see into the future well enough to tell us what you see that looks like? >> i think the booster dose, the first dose gives a high level, higher than the levels of production was 95% with the two dose. the question is how long will it last. we know that we saw waning of immunity six months after the second dose. we need to follow up for six, seven, eight, nine months of the booster dose. if i can make a prediction because we have seen the vaccination curves multiple times, but it looks like that it will last for a year. it losing like there is a time that this will become an annual vaccination. however, i have been surprised many times in my lives, science you expect and it doesn't come like that. we have to wait and see, but it looks like an annual
vaccination. >> this may be a good question then to close on, which is looking further into the future, extrapolating from what you have seen in your life already from science, let's go beyond covid-19, let's go to the work in general that you see in bioscience and medical science. what excites you the most of the developments you're seeing going into the future and then perhaps you can also share a little bit about what concerns you might be -- what concerned and end on a positive note what excites you. what keeps you up at night and what gives you the most hope going into the future? >> the future of the life sector is brilliant. tlt is going to be a huge need for good monies. people are getting older and not only do they live longer, but this means that new diseases that were not important before
start emerging. and those are people moving from rural places to urban places, 150 million people in the world are moving to cities every year. this means in healthcare from zero access almost to monies to access to monies. the demand will be huge. i think science will be able to provide solutions for this. so it will be there. this is happening because biology combined right now is looking tremendous, tremendous opportunities for new disease, for new medical treatments. so it's going to be very good. clearly they will be initial and that's the biggest issue that we're going to face. it's not the cost of medicine. it's the cost to society of people living longer which means
more healthcare costs, more everything. i think monies, on a positive note, monies will be part of a solution, not part of the problem. the medicines, the good monies will reduce hospitalizations, will reduce other medical interventions and as a result will bring savings to the healthcare system other than additional cost and of course will make the lives of humans longer and better and i'm very optimistic this will happen in the next decades. >> thank you for that. because we're honoring you tomorrow evening and we're honoring you alongside your colleagues from bion tech, great jewish background, turkish background, a lot of corporate collaborations don't work this way and they don't work this effectively. to end this interview, talk about this combination and why is it that this one has worked?
why is it you have been able to produce something quite historic nature where many corporate collaborations among c.e.o.s, founders of companies don't work in quite the same way? >> i think it was both companies had developed very similar, they were both very representative. clearly one was very big, one was very small compared to the big one. the leaders, turkish [indiscernible], the other one was greek jew from the united states, the exact opposite. the thing that connected was that we had a common purpose. the first thing we discussed was when we met on the phone, what kind of principals are we going to operate and we said it doesn't matter who does what. it doesn't matter anything else
then bringing the vaccine as number one priority. truly committed, yes, are you fully committed, yes, and that was it. if anything, i think the fact that we had both a little bit of mediterranean, let's say, heritage created a stronger bond and trust. that's the word i'm going to use, trust. the fact that we had such a big trust from one another cascaded down and trust from one thing to another. that's why this thing happened so well. >> you have just underscored most of the, maybe the most important word in any collaboration which is trust. thank you for ending this conversation there. thank you for taking the time for this rich conversation. we look forward to honoring you tomorrow evening. we couldn't imagine any individual, any company, any partner company more deserving
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and george packer, they offer ways to overcome any qualities divisions within the country. -- inequalities and divisions within the country. then a conversation between paul auster and joyce carol oates on the writing life. later, a discussion on the late posthumous nonfiction work about the less living survivor of the atlantic slave trade. then at 10 p.m. eastern on afterwards, dr. paul off it, and director of the vaccine education center, talks about his book, "you bet your life: from blood transfusions to mass vaccinations." he's interviewed by dr. emily gurley at johns hopkins
university would watch book tv every sunday on c-span2 and find a full schedule in your program guide or watch online anytime at book tv.org -- booktv.org. congresswoman liz cheney was the keynote speaker at an awards presentation. ms. cheney serves on the committee investigating the january 6 attack on the u.s. capitol. from manchester, new hampshire, this runs 40 minutes. [indistinct chatter]