Pfizer CEO On Next Steps For Coronavirus Vaccine And His Controversial Stock Trade

Nov 20, 2020
Originally published on November 20, 2020 10:02 am

After announcing that its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is on the verge of filing with the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization.

Albert Bourla, the chairman and CEO of Pfizer, is calling it an important step in an historic eight-month journey to produce a vaccine — with its partner, BioNTech — to help end the pandemic.

"To hear ... we have a vaccine, it works, is effective, gave me an unbelievable joy," he tells All Things Considered.

The company hopes to file with the FDA as soon as Friday, says Bourla. Once the company receives that authorization, he says, "we will be ready to start distributing our vaccine within hours."

Pfizer will manufacture the vaccine at three sites in the U.S. and two in Europe and expects to produce enough to reach 25 million people by the end of the year — with roughly half earmarked for the U.S. and the other half for the rest of the world, Bourla says.

In excerpts from the interview, he discusses distribution plans for the vaccine, which requires storage at ultra-cold temperatures, and the controversy surrounding his recent sale of Pfizer stock.


Interview Highlights

What gives you confidence that once you produce the vaccine, getting it to where it needs to be and then keeping it cold is not going to be a huge problem?

We have vast expertise in the logistics of medicines, and we have developed a specialized box. This box doesn't need to be in a refrigerator, which means that we are sending our vaccines from our manufacturing place overnight in most places in the U.S., [with dry ice] inside the box.

... But the box doesn't have to be in a refrigerated vehicle, it can go with any normal transportation. And we have done this repeatedly with our 150 research sites that we engaged all over the world to run the clinical trial. So we know exactly how it's done, and it's worked very, very well.

There have been some questions about a stock sale, and I want to put them to you just to allow you to respond directly. The same day [Nov. 9] that initial results came out that found the Pfizer vaccine was more than 90% effective, you sold a ton of stock in the company, $5.6 million. Why?

I asked to sell some stock in February of 2020. The only way that CEOs can trade stocks of their own company, without creating any shadows of they knew maybe something, is to use already established, by legal framework, plan. So in this plan, you need to say when, you need to say how much and at what price you want to sell your stock, and that you need to do it months before the sale is happen.

So I did that in February of 2020. The plan was expiring in September, so in the middle of August, I renewed the plan with exactly the same terms as I had in February, and I didn't even know the shares sold, because I'm not selling them. It's an administrator that sells my shares that I have already given to them. So this is exactly what happened.

But it's that August date that is raising questions because the timing of when you set up the plan — Aug. 19, that's according to your disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission — it was the very next day, Aug. 20, that Pfizer put out a press release with positive data about the Phase 1 vaccine trial. So I need to ask directly, did you have any inside information?

I think it's irrelevant because when the stocks were sold, I didn't know if that would be positive or negative.

Just yes or no. Did you know of any material non-public information?

Frankly, I need to check the dates. I was aware of the information of vaccines, of multiple dates, but I don't recall even which day I did that because this is on automatic pilot, as I said.

The fact that you have to declare today and sell a long time after, even if someone is aware of material information, he cannot sell the day of the material information, before this material information becomes public.

As CEO of Pfizer, you are ultimately responsible for its product. A lot of people are wary about [the safety of] a coronavirus vaccine. You would give this vaccine to your own family?

There's no doubt that I will. The question is if they will allow me to do it, because I think we need to make sure that the vaccine is distributed to those that they need it the most. And I believe that the government will start providing the vaccine first to first-line workers like nurses and physicians and then to vulnerable populations. But I think it will be important ... that the executives, the board of Pfizer, could receive the vaccine so that that will be a demonstration that we are first ones to trust.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First came good news from Pfizer. Then came even better news. Last week the pharmaceutical giant reported its COVID-19 vaccine being developed in partnership with BioNTech was more than 90% effective. Well, that was an interim result. More data has since come in, and Pfizer now says its vaccine is 95% effective. The CEO of Pfizer is calling it an important step in this historic eight-month journey to produce a vaccine to help end this pandemic. Well, the CEO of Pfizer is Albert Bourla, and he is with us now.

Dr. Bourla, welcome. Congratulations.

ALBERT BOURLA: Thank you very much, Miss Kelly.

KELLY: Describe the moment, if you would, when you first learned of these results.

BOURLA: It's difficult to find words strong enough to describe the feelings. The whole world is expecting from you to hear the good news, and at this moment, you don't know if the news will be good or bad. And so to hear it first - we have a vaccine; it works; it's effective - gave me an unbelievable joy.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's talk next steps. I'm seeing reports that you will go ahead and file tomorrow with the FDA to try to get emergency use authorization. Is that correct?

BOURLA: We plan to apply very soon - I hope tomorrow.

KELLY: You hope tomorrow. So then to the question of when people will be able to get this vaccine, you expect to have enough to reach 25 million people by the end of the year. Will that all go to the U.S., though?

BOURLA: No, we will not all send it to the U.S., and it's not all going to be produced in the U.S. In the U.S., I believe we will give half of this quantity, and the other half will go to rest of the world.

KELLY: OK - so, like, 12 million or so people in the U.S. who will be able to...

BOURLA: I believe so, hopefully.

KELLY: OK.

BOURLA: We'll find out. Yeah.

KELLY: If people know anything about your vaccine, they probably have heard that it needs to be kept really, really cold, ultracold temperatures - like, way colder than a normal freezer could do. What gives you confidence that that is not going to be a problem; that once you produce it, getting it to where it needs to be and then keeping it cold when it's there - that that's not going to be a huge problem?

BOURLA: We have vast expertise in the logistics of medicines, and we have developed a specialized box. This is a box that doesn't need to be in a refrigerator, which means that we are sending our vaccines from our manufacturing place overnight in most places in the U.S.

KELLY: With dry ice in there. Is that right?

BOURLA: Inside the box. But the box doesn't have to be in a refrigerated vehicle. It can go with any normal transportation. And we have done this repeatedly with 150 research sites that we engaged all over the world to run the clinical trial. So we know exactly how it's done, and it works very, very well.

KELLY: Dr. Bourla, there have been some questions about a stock sale, and I want to put them to you just to allow you to respond directly. The same day that those initial results that we mentioned came out, the ones that found the Pfizer vaccine more than 90% effective, you sold a ton of stock in the company - $5.6 million. Why?

BOURLA: I asked the - to sell some stocks in February of 2020. The only way that CEOs can trade stocks of their own company without creating any shadows (ph) of they knew maybe something is to use already established by legal framework plan. So in this plan, you need to say when, you need to say how much and at what price you want to sell your stock. And that - you need to do it the months before the sale is coming. So I did that in February of 2020. The plan was expiring in September. So in the middle of August, I renew the plan with exactly the same terms as I had in February. And I didn't even know the shares sold because I'm not selling them. It is an administrator that sells my shares that I have already given to them.

KELLY: Right.

BOURLA: So this is exactly what happened.

KELLY: You put these stock trades on autopilot, as it were. But it's that August date that is raising questions because the timing of when you set up the plan, August 19 - that's according to your disclosure to the SEC - it was just the very next day, August 20, that Pfizer put out a press release with positive data about the phase 1 vaccine trial, which was big headlines all over. So I need to ask directly, did you have any inside information?

BOURLA: I think it's irrelevant because when the stocks were sold, I didn't know if that will be positive or negative and where that will be.

KELLY: Just yes or no, did you know of any material, non-public information?

BOURLA: Frankly, I need to check the date. I was aware of the information of vaccines of multiple dates, but I don't recall even which day I did that because this is an automatic pilot, as I said. The fact that you have to declare today and sell long time after - even if someone is aware of material information, he cannot sell the day of the material information because - before this material information becomes public.

KELLY: As CEO of Pfizer, you are, of course, ultimately responsible for its product. So I do need to ask you how safe this one will be because, as you know, a lot of people are wary about a coronavirus vaccine. You would give this vaccine to your own family, to your nearest and dearest?

BOURLA: Oh, there's no doubt that I will. The question is if they will allow me to do it because I think we need to make sure that the vaccine is distributed to those that they need it the most. And I believe that the government will start providing the vaccine first to first line workers like nurses and physicians, then to vulnerable populations. But I think it will be important, at least what I'm trying to convince, that the executives of the board of Pfizer could receive the vaccine so that that will be a demonstration that we're the first one to trust.

KELLY: Albert Bourla - he is chairman and CEO of Pfizer. Thank you very much, Dr. Bourla.

BOURLA: Oh, thank you very much. And also, I want to give a last advice to people. Until we have the vaccines, people need to be very careful and not to relax their guard. So I think they need to continue following the advice of the health care authorities.

KELLY: Dr. Bourla, thank you.

BOURLA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.