AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following the landmark emergency use authorization (EUA) issued for the Pfizer vaccine in December 2020, Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla recounted the race to create the vaccine and future expansions for medical research into cancer, gene therapy and other diseases — as well as research into a potential yearly dose.
During the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals on Monday, Bourla spoke with Yahoo Finance’s Julie Hyman in anticipation of his upcoming book, “Moonshot,” which explores the creation of the Pfizer vaccine in the fight against COVID-19.
For a process that traditionally takes several years to complete, the Food and Drug Administration issued an EUA to Pfizer just nine months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
When it comes to vaccines, Bourla said there is a huge difference between creating and administering vaccines to people already with a particular illness, versus establishing a drug that’s effective at preventing severe illness.
All drugs go through a final study prior to receiving an EUA from the FDA, Bourla explained. Traditionally, most studies feature several thousand trial patients; in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine study, theirs included 46,000 people.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said, later adding: “Before this [final study] started, a process that usually takes six, seven years [to develop a vaccine] — we did it in four months.”
The technological development paved the way for future advancement opportunities, Bourla said, particularly as the world continues to see this convergence between biology and technological innovation.
“What’s next?” Hyman asked.
“More breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. We’re working on multiple fronts,” Bourla said. “Oncology cancer is one of the very big ones. Other infectious diseases. We’re working on cardiovascular diseases, we are working on metabolic diseases. We are working a lot of rare diseases, particularly gene therapy that will be equally universal as the mRNA technology.”
For Bourla, he said it is critical to him that Pfizer continues building on the momentum and credibility it built for itself during the pandemic. When it comes to medical technology, trust is critical.
“Reputation comes in drops. You can lose it in buckets,” he said.
He also teased to the possibility of a fourth vaccine on the horizon, while also responding to questions about COVID-19 fatigue and how to reach and sustain an “endemic” phase.
“We have now oral treatments at our disposal that are a real game-changer because people will get COVID — either because immunity wanes or because they didn’t do the third or the fourth dose, if it comes, or because they didn’t vaccinate at all,” he said. “So, with all of these measures, I think we can live with the viruses we are living with. We live with thousands of viruses right now, in our lives.”
Currently, Bourla said his Pfizer team is researching the potential of a yearly vaccine dose, akin to an influenza shot, as a potential resource for future preventative measures.
When reflecting on the difficulties executing the vaccine rollout, he acknowledged the logistical and scientific challenges of maximizing the scale of Pfizer’s operations to accommodate so many trials and the development of a vaccine in fewer than a year’s time.
However, he said failure was never an option in his mind. He said his commitment was to the creation of the vaccine, regardless of the hurdles Pfizer had to overcome along the way.
While there are many moments that proved challenging, he said he found the most solace in one thing: Easing the fears of millions around the world who waited with anticipation for a vaccine dose.
Through it, he sees this next decade as one he dubs the “scientific renaissance.”
“I think what was the big thing that changed the course of history was the world was scared and was in the darkness, and suddenly, science brings forth,” he said. This thing that human ingenuity can overcome challenges and light will be seen at the end of the tunnel.”