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By: Andrew N. Liveris AO and Jessica Forbes

Boasting a career with Pfizer spanning over 30 years, and with a portfolio of senior global positions under his belt, it is no wonder that the chairman and CEO of Pfizer Dr Albert Bourla stepped up to lead the world out of the COVID-19 crisis. 

On November 8, I was joined by Dr Bourla to discuss the enormous challenge of delivering the first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine – a conversation facilitated by the Hellenic Initiative Australia (THI), and its director, Professor Helen Zorbas.

As a proud member of the Greek Diaspora, Dr Bourla speaks on his current efforts to assist in transforming the nation, attributing his optimistic outlook to the nurturing of his Greek upbringing.

 

LEADERSHIP​

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Dr Bourla shares the story of his childhood, including his family's experience during the Holocaust. With a nomadic history of relocation across Europe and the United States, Dr. Bourla speaks fondly of his early years and time at university. 

Making his start in veterinary medicine, Dr. Bourla later went on to complete a PhD in the biotechnology of reproduction from the veterinary school of Aristotle University. He joined Pfizer in Greece in 1993, later assuming roles in Europe, and then New York in 2011. 

Dr Bourla played an instrumental role in forging Pfizer’s strong and competitive global standing in oncology and became President of global vaccine oncology and consumer healthcare. As President of Pfizer Innovative Health, Albert innovated the business model.

 

He now holds several board positions, and in 2020 was ranked as America's top CEO in the pharmaceutical sector by Institutional Investor magazine. Dr Bourla was appointed Chairman and CEO of Pfizer in 2019, and recalls feeling like his company was one of few with the scientific capabilities, scale and resources to create a life-saving vaccine when Covid-19 swept the globe in early 2020.  

 

THE RACE FOR THE COVID-19 VACCINE 

Despite the gravity of his global contribution to the fight against COVID-19, Dr Bourla is humble, highlighting the contributions of his predecessor and team of dedicated workers.

Under ordinary circumstances, the Covid vaccine would take eight years to complete. Instead, Pfizer completed the task in just 8 months. In addition, the $200 million manufacturing capacity was increased to 3 billion units. Between March 2020 and July 2020, 600 molecules were synthesized and tested against Covid. Following the selection of a single molecule, trials commenced and phase two of the vaccine creation process was completed in only four months.

Dr Bourla recalls the moment he put forward the impossible task to his team, which was met with resistance and denial.

“They came [to me] with a new plan that was extraordinary. Instead of eight years, they would be closer to two. And I told them, “Ok, let's do me a favour, we will repeat the meeting on Thursday, I want someone to calculate from now until then, how many people will die from Covid? If we don't have an option?”

Results ultimately came from the team recognising the responsibility of the company to deliver a vaccine for the world. While Dr Bourla is quick to defend the for-profit nature of Pfizer and its responsibility to shareholders, he believes that the broad 2-billion-dollar budget allowed his team to settle into the task. 

“It's not that every single month [that] I say to people “don't worry about 2-billion, we will write them off”. 

“But the economy would collapse if we couldn't find the solution… and there were not many others who could do so. I’m a good steward of the capital that we have, but at that moment, we had to do it.”

Dr Boula voiced his belief that companies tend to think inside the box, especially when goal setting. This, he said, encourages only incremental improvement. 

“People don't know what they can and what they cannot do. And if anything, they have a tendency to severely underestimate what they can do.” 

“When the goal is a transformational, very big target, they are forced to think out of the box, and they will surprise you with miracles. Ask the impossible, and you will be surprise how close you will come.”

Dr Bourla and his team have worked to provide equitable access to the Pfizer vaccine from the start of the rollout, charging high-income and middle-income countries in tiers, and selling to low-income countries at cost. Equitable access to the Pfizer vaccine will continue to progress globally across the remainder of 2021 and into 2022. 

 

TRANSFORMING GREECE

In addition to his onsite team, Dr Bourla acknowledged the ongoing contribution of employees working for Pfizer in Greece. Following a decade of financial hardship, Dr Bourla recognised that a significant proportion of Greek scientists, data scientists and computer sciences were struggling with unemployment. 

Observing his capacity to 'do well and do good', the Pfizer Digital Innovation Hub opened in Thessaloniki in late October, employing 200 Greek staff members. 

“Our plan is to recruit 700 people in Thessaloniki, and we have already hired 550 of them. We [are] astonished with the level of talent that we got.” 

I have often thought that the talent pool in Greece is undersold internationally, along with the ambition of youth and the quality of educational institutions. 

In response, The Hellenic Initiative has been sponsoring Venture Gardens and funded many successful start-ups in Greece. 

When asked to describe the perseverance of the Greek people, Dr Bourla said, “they are hungry for opportunities and when you give them [an] opportunity, they have a zeal to exceed it.” 

ABOUT THE HELLENIC INITIATIVE AUSTRALIA

The Hellenic Initiative Australia is a not-for-profit organisation and part of a global movement, bringing together the Greek Diaspora and Philhellenes in support of Greece and its people. A registered charity with DGR status, all donations are tax-deductible in Australia.