Alone in the spotlight, Pfizer CEO Bourla swears pure intentions in the rush to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. But will the public believe it?
Now that Moderna has shifted expectations on pivotal data for its Covid-19 vaccine to some time just after the election and AstraZeneca has been stalled by a safety issue, the sole player that can deliver a shot through an emergency use authorization this month is Pfizer.
And Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla wants no part of the political furor that has swelled around that topic.
In an open letter, Bourla lamented the spotlight that President Trump directed at Pfizer during the first chaotic presidential debate. Trump — who has just tested positive for the coronavirus, pushing the pandemic back into the headlines — is shoving Pfizer into gale force political winds by insisting that a vaccine could be OK’d in the next few weeks. And the CEO insists that politics has nothing to do with the crash R&D project Pfizer has mounted with BioNTech to get an mRNA jab onto the market as soon as possible.
Now, we are approaching our goal and despite not having any political considerations with our pre-announced date, we find ourselves in the crucible of the U.S. Presidential election. In this hyper-partisan year, there are some who would like us to move more quickly and others who argue for delay. Neither of those options are acceptable to me.
Right now, Bourla represents the entire biopharma industry, and the stakes for everyone are enormous. If Trump does push through a vaccine without the data necessary to satisfy most people about its safety and efficacy, the fallout will go a long way to destroying public confidence in the FDA and the ability of the drug giants to act responsibly. It will also incite a sharp public backlash against the first vaccine, threatening herd immunity.
FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn opened that door by scrambling to OK convalescent plasma with the sketchiest of data, readily touting the therapy by Trump’s side. His protests about integrity and an ability to resist pressure from Trump are meaningless.
So it’s all on Bourla, who runs one of the largest pharma companies on the globe. And he has to convince a deeply skeptical public — which has regularly assigned pharma to the lowest rungs of public regard — that Pfizer can be trusted to act in their best interest.
That’s a tough act, particularly as Bourla now represents a deep-seated hope in biopharma that the industry has a shot at redemption in the public’s eyes by coming up with good drugs and vaccines to end the pandemic.
What is important, says Bourla in his letter, is that the global death toll from the pandemic is approaching a million people. And Pfizer will continue to meet the crucial challenge of reigning it in by traveling “at the speed of science.”
Second, we would never succumb to political pressure. The only pressure we feel—and it weighs heavy—are the billions of people, millions of businesses and hundreds of government officials that are depending on us. We’ve engaged with many elected leaders around the globe through this health crisis, but Pfizer took no investment money from any government. Our independence is a precious asset.
Third, our priority is the development of a safe and effective vaccine to end this pandemic. I have a duty to Pfizer’s 171-year history to honor our legacy of discovering and manufacturing high-quality medicines. We will never cut a corner. Pfizer’s purpose is simple: “Breakthroughs that Change Patients’ Lives.” It’s our North Star.
Bourla’s appeal likely won’t change the political debate that is now boiling around this issue. That can only die down once the votes are counted and the battle against the virus continues. And if Pfizer does seek and get an EUA before the election, don’t expect any resurrection of public opinion regarding pharma — even if it’s a good vaccine. In this fractious environment, no one gets the benefit of doubt. Least of all pharma.