Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla: How digital played a role in the 'impossible task' of vaccine production

In recent times, many companies have declared digital to be of importance to their business strategy. Pfizer, however, is one of those companies that has walked the talk. On the very same day that Albert Bourla (pictured below right) officially assumed his role as Pfizer's CEO on 1 January 2019, the company also welcomed Lidia Fonseca as EVP, chief digital and technology officer.

During a keynote chat with Adobe chairman, president, and CEO Shantanu Narayen (pictured below left) at the Adobe Summit 2021, Bourla said: "This was the first signal sent that digital is going to be the most important transformation at Pfizer." During the first 18 months, Bourla explained that Fonseca's goal was to digitise the discovery and development process of medicine. While Pfizer typically requires four weeks to carry out specific processes to formulate the COVID-19 vaccine, for example, it was able to reduce the time to 18 hours due to advanced analytics and super computing platforms, Bourla said. Within two to three days, the information was ready for the US Food and Drug Administration to review. "Without digital, we wouldn't be here today," he said. 

pfizer adobe shantanu albert

The journey to producing three billion dozes of vaccines was no easy feat. When COVID-19 first made the news, Bourla and the team thought the virus would mainly be confined to China. However, the virus was still of concern to Pfizer given it had a large manufacturing operation in the country. "I was very concerned about our employees' safety and how the business will evolve, given everything that we are hearing. It was the end of February that I realised [COVID-19] was going to be big all over the world," he explained. Immediately, Bourla had top three priorities: the safety of its 90,000 employees, to ensure Pfizer can still continue bringing medicine to people who needed it, and to do what needed to be done so the company can provide a medical service.

Aside from those priorities, Bourla faced the challenging task of getting employees to believe that it was able to develop a vaccine in record time, something which Bourla described to be "an impossible task". "You must believe it at the top and cascade that belief down to the bottom. To make the impossible possible, you need to have thousands of people believing that they can do it. That was the most challenging of all," he explained.

The need to instill a belief in employees also stems from Pfizer's purpose - Breakthroughs that change patients' lives. Based on this, the company has established a clear set of expectations regarding "what" it needs to achieve for patients and "how" it will go about achieving those goals. The "how" is represented by four values - courage, excellence, equity, and joy.

Luck never comes to the unprepared and this company was preparing for this moment.

"We knew we were preparing to be able to breed breakthroughs that could change patients' lives," Bourla said. To aid Pfizer on this journey, the company has also "significantly increased" investment in digital and research. The pharmaceutical giant understood that it cannot transform by merely changing the company's portfolio but rather by changing the culture within. 

"We did not manufacture 200 million doses, which would have been monumental. Instead, we manufactured three billion doses in nine months. Imagine if we did not have the courage to make tough decisions," Bourla said. He added that joy is not only about having fun but also the pride that one experiences when one belongs to a group that is serving the greater good. "It was the culture that brought this vaccine. The four values helped us achieve what we achieved," he added.

Amidst the race to develop and supply countries with the vaccine earlier this year, Pfizer rolled out a new logo in January this year to showcase its move from "a diversified healthcare giant" to a company that is more focused on producing prescription drugs and vaccines that prevent and cure disease, the Wall Street Journal previously reported.

According to WSJ, Pfizer's chief corporate affairs officer Sally Susman said previously that rebranding efforts were halted last year to focus on marketing and communications efforts surrounding COVID-19 and its task of manufacturing and distributing a vaccine. When the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine showed positive results last November, the company jumpstarted its rebranding efforts and worked to complete the new logo and marketing collaterals.

"When Pfizer's name and reputation skyrocketed because of our vaccine work, I thought about whether it was the right time to launch the new identity, and I concluded that yes it was," he said. Bourla explained that the company was in a position of change, which was the best position to be in, and it wanted to send a signal to consumers that the company is consistent and will not let them down. 

"Pfizer's mission of delivering breakthroughs that change patients' lives guides everything that we do. It is very well documented that corporations that stayed true to their mission and purpose perform way better than companies that do not. Pfizer does not waste time in matters that do not contribute to bringing breakthroughs that will change patients' lives," he added.

Related articles:
Pfizer injects new life into logo amidst race to distribute vaccine
Publicis Media bags even more GSK business with Pfizer brand
Pfizer mulls sale of US$15 billion consumer health unit