Working in a news organization gives you the opportunity to meet important people with fascinating personal and professional histories. It is a sort of antidote to the toxicity of the public sphere.
I first heard of Albert Bourla a few months ago. I read that he is Greek but could never have imagined just how Greek he really is. When I sent him the first email in English, he replied that he is a “real Greek” and in our ensuing Skype conversations I realized that he has perfect command of the language, follows developments in Greece closely and really cares about the country.
Bourla is chairman and chief executive officer at the multinational pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Apart from a successful executive, he is also often on the telephone with US President Donald Trump, discussing the coronavirus crisis.
In his native Thessaloniki he is known as Akis. He hails from an old Jewish family and graduated with a PhD in veterinary medicine from Aristotle University. He visits the northern port city often and is, naturally, a big fan of Halkidiki, the region’s most popular holiday destination.
Bourla has developed a personal relationship with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and has invested in the creation of a Pfizer hub in Thessaloniki, which will start operating in the fall with a staff of around 200.
In this online interview from his home in New York, Bourla speaks about the development of a coronavirus vaccine and how accessible he believes it will be, particularly among poorer countries. He explains what being Greek means to him and how the brain drain can be reversed for the country to take off. He is also very proud of how Greece’s image has changed following its successful handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
I’d like to ask about your personal journey. I understand that you were born in Thessaloniki.
Thank you for your interest; it is a great pleasure to be talking to you. Yes, I was born, grew up, studied, fell in love and got married in Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki was and remains the epicenter of my life.
In our first email exchange, you said you are a “real Greek,” which is something I also get from the way you talk about Greece.
My Greek identity is pronounced and my memories of Greece have marked me. I was already a grown-up when I left Greece, around 34 or 35 years old. That means that I spent all my character-forming years in Greece. All my friends are friends I had back then. Every summer I return to Greece and my friends are waiting for me and we go on holiday together. Every summer.
I assume you holiday in Halkidiki?
Yes, I have a house in Halkidiki, which I bought in 2009. Before that we went on island holidays. But my best friend bought a house next to mine the following year and we have spent [the summers] together ever since. My sister and her children, as well as my in-laws, live in Thessaloniki. We have very strong ties and this made me transfer my Greek identity onto my children, who have only lived in Greece during the holidays. But also my body language, my behavior, makes it very obvious to people who know me in the United States, my colleagues, that I am not a typical American, but rather a typical Greek.
What is it like being the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company in the coronavirus pandemic? What are the biggest challenges?
It is a great privilege because you can make a difference, but it is also a huge responsibility and I must confess I feel this responsibility weighing heavily on my shoulders. Being a CEO of a very large company, in whatever sector, creates huge responsibilities, since you are a global employer. You have to make decisions in the midst of the pandemic about how you will ensure the safety of your employees, how you will protect the safety of the communities in which your company is active, and I understood immediately we must also find a solution to the crisis by manufacturing a vaccine or an antiviral drug.
When do you think we might have a timeline for a vaccine?
When we began our efforts a few months ago, I was wondering if we could come up with a vaccine. Now I tend to ask when we will come up with a vaccine. I am reasonably optimistic that science will come up with a vaccine, which is what societies need at this moment to help them open up again. The issue is when. At the moment, many pharmaceuticals companies – ours among them – are actively trying to create a vaccine. I hope they all are successful because doctors will need to have choices and the needed quantities will be such that no single company, no matter how big, and this includes Pfizer, will be able to cover them. We are continually monitoring data, because research is being done in cooperation with the [US] Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European drug approval authorities. If things continue to go well, and barring a nasty surprise, we can have a vaccine by October about whose safety and efficacy not only us but all drug-approving authorities around the world are convinced. We must also have prepared millions of doses of the vaccine to be used immediately. To achieve all this, you must do things very differently than in the conventional way of developing a vaccine; that is going through all the development phases simultaneously rather than sequentially. Which means that, if you fail somewhere, the whole enterprise collapses and you have spent your money and your scientific resources in vain. But this is the only way if you must achieve something fast. And one of the biggest risks we are undertaking is that we will start producing the vaccines without knowing if they work. If we are lucky, and humanity is lucky, and the vaccine works, we will have the doses when they are needed, most likely when fall and winter come around again [in 2021]. If not, we will destroy the quantities produced.
What kind of spending are we talking about?
Pfizer alone has a budget of $2 billion for a vaccine and antiviral drugs, with the lion’s share to be spent on the vaccine. And spending will be frontloaded, that is we must initially spend at least $1 billion this year.
Some people are worried that the usual safety protocols will be sidestepped because of the rush to come up with a vaccine.
At this moment, the FDA, the European and Japanese authorities and, in general, any authority that must give approval for a vaccine that will be used on its citizens, are following studies closely and have set up quality standards. In our case, and I believe this is true of all big pharmaceuticals actively involved, concern about the safety and success of the vaccine is a given, irrespective of what the FDA wants. I know there is a thin line about what “safe enough” means. First of all, “safe enough” is the wrong term. It must be totally safe.
Another concern is whether this vaccine will be cheap enough to be administered to people who cannot afford it and, consequently, if other countries beyond the US will have easy access to it.
Both excellent questions. First, about the citizens of the so-called advanced world – such as North America, the EU, Japan, Korea, Australia – where there are well-established health systems, almost always, and this is most likely to happen with the Covid-19 vaccine, citizens won’t have to pay anything. The vaccine will be available for free. The national health systems will pay the pharmaceuticals. At the moment very few countries are concerned about the cost of the vaccine. National budgets are being harmed to such an extent that spending to acquire a vaccine would be no object. In saying this, I am aware, on my part, that I cannot apply market principles in this case. I cannot say I will charge, let’s say, the US, or the German, or the Greek government on the basis of the vaccine’s value, because we would have to charge really high prices and this would be wrong. Regardless of value, if we come up with a vaccine, we plan to sell it at a price comparable to all our other vaccines, for which there is no comparable demand. But the important thing right now is to come up with a vaccine. Also, I would like to mention what will happen with the other countries. African countries, or some Latin American ones, may be of very little commercial value to us but this is a public health and human rights issue and, of course, they have equal rights. We shouldn’t deprive countries of vaccines their governments are unable to pay for, especially at a time where I know demand will outstrip supply. For this reason, we are working hard to come up with an equitable way to make the vaccine available to countries without the financial means to buy it. For those countries, any hurdles will be in infrastructure, not financial. For example, the vaccine we are working on, especially the first generation of the vaccine, will need to be transported at a temperature of -80 degrees Celsius (-112 F). You need a certain specialized infrastructure to do this. Very few African countries have such an infrastructure. We are currently working intensively with Bill Gates, the famous philanthropist and Microsoft founder, who has an excellent track record of actions in these countries, on how to resolve such infrastructure issues so that they can get their fair share.
Does this mean we will get this vaccine in Greece quite soon after it becomes available?
Our aim is to provide the vaccine simultaneously to Europe and the US, when it becomes available. There could be a difference of a week or two, but this would be due to logistics and not to politics or any other reason. But, because in times of crisis, the US government wants the vaccine for itself, Europe does too and also within Europe, northern European governments want it for themselves and southern Europeans also, we must find a way for an equitable distribution. Knowing the issues between the US and Europe, I set up two separate production lines, one for Europe and one for the US, in order to avoid such an issue. But within Europe we have to find an equitable solution for everyone and, of course, Greece. Beloved Greece.
What is your opinion of the way Greece and the Greek government responded to the coronavirus pandemic?
Excellent. We Greeks abroad often are more Greek than you. Not just because we have cherished memories of our beaches and our ouzo, but because we are surrounded by non-Greeks who will not shy from criticizing Greece’s faults, and this makes us mad and makes us love the country even more. But truth be told, we have not often had the chance to use our country as an example to be imitated. The way Greece dealt with the coronavirus and the way it is emerging as one of the most successful countries in dealing with it, has made us extremely proud. And this success is widely discussed globally, not just among Greeks. The international press continually writes about how well Greece did. Huge pride.
Thessaloniki earned the Pfizer investment ‘on its own merit’
I know that Pfizer is planning a small hub in Thessaloniki, coincidentally, I guess. What are your plans for this hub?
First of all, let me comment on the “coincidentally.” Many say that this hub in Thessaloniki would not exist were it not for me and, in a way, they are right, meaning that I knew of Thessaloniki’s potential and I have the power to make things happen. I want to emphasize that I didn’t make a gift to Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki won the investment on its own merit. But I knew what others didn’t: that the hub will be hugely successful, because I know the quality of the scientists produced by the city’s university [the Aristotle University], especially in this particular sector, and I know the urge and fervor with which Greeks, especially the young, work and want to learn. Such a hub, a hub of digital research that will serve Pfizer’s needs in the US, Europe and China, is something that will provide great knowledge to those working there and will make great waves throughout the economy. That’s why we did it. As for the center itself: we have made the first hirings and were hoping to have hired a significant number of people by the fall, but because of the coronavirus, we are a month to a month-and-a-half behind. We had envisaged an investment to employ 200, mainly university trained scientists, and I am optimistic that we will eventually employ many more in Thessaloniki.
Do you see this as a way of reversing brain drain? Because, as you know, we have lost a lot of talent in Greece, especially during the financial crisis.
Of course, I have no doubt about it. I believe the brain drain, the way it happened, harmed the country, because it was mainly about young people at their most productive and was mainly about scientists whose skills were needed abroad and who could easily find a job. That is, it consisted mostly of the people whom you hope to be the ones that will help restart your economy. This is bad. Now, as someone who has never regretted leaving Greece, I understand and I don’t want to send a message to Greek youth that they should just stay there, be inward-looking and not look [for opportunities] abroad. But the way it happened, losing so many people in two years, is a big problem. Greece can and should create good jobs, modern jobs, new technology jobs, and this is, I think, the way to bring people back. I know very well that, when we advertised for jobs in the Thessaloniki hub, a great number of applicants were Greek expatriates who wanted to return. And this confirms my case [about job creation]. Pfizer did it and, immediately afterwards, Cisco announced that it will create a hub in Thessaloniki. I think Deloitte has a big hub in Thessaloniki. Recently, Microsoft announced a similar thing, not in Thessaloniki, elsewhere in Greece. This will create a number of jobs that will help keep the young from leaving.
What would you advise a young person just starting to think about career options, maybe from the same Thessaloniki public school you attended?
I am not a priest to dispense advice but I can say that many things helped me along the way. I advise my children that, first, I have never seen any successful person not liking what they do. I have met many people who like what they do and are not necessarily successful but never the opposite. So, if you want to succeed, always choose a job you like and try to like it. It doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or an entry-level marketing manager like I was in Pfizer. I adored my job. When I joined Pfizer, I didn’t want to go at first because I adored my previous job at the university. Once I joined Pfizer, I no longer wanted to go back to academia. Second, keep an open mind and never try to plan your career. Do the best job you can do and things will come your way. In my 25 years at Pfizer, I went through 14 or 15 different positions before becoming CEO. I never pushed for a certain position, in the sense of using it as a springboard for another and then another. I always did a good job where I was and someone saw me and proposed another position. Thirdly, always set the bar high, always have a vision to attain your best and, once you do, keep pushing higher and higher, and that’s the way you will achieve maximum results in your life. But that was me.