Without digital, we wouldn’t be here even today: Albert Bourla, Pfizer

The chairman and CEO of Pfizer discusses his first reaction to the pandemic, how the company utilised digital to create the ‘impossible’ vaccine, and more.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

The chairman and CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, discussed the transformative role that digital has had on the pharmaceutical giant as it rolled out vaccines in record time, in a session at Adobe Summit.

In conversation with Adobe chairman, president and CEO Shantanu Narayen Burla divulged his action plan for the COVID-19 pandemic when it began to spread in February 2020. 

He had three priorities: "The first was the safety of the 90,000 people that were working with us. The second was that we had to also continue bringing in medicines that people would need during the pandemic. I was mainly concerned about hospitals because I knew that they would be overcrowded. The third was about what we can do to provide medical service." 

"In my mind, the first one was treatment. It was within a week that I realized that we need to create a COVID vaccine," he said. 

Asked how the company created the vaccine in record time, Bourla stated because everyone believed it was an impossible task, they went about the whole process "very differently."

"Every time you are at the helm of a task like this, you need to think differently. The most important of all was that we had to deliver. This (different) thinking, was not only required at the top but had to be scaled down to every single person. To make the impossible possible, you need to have thousands of people believing that they can do it. We all believed it could happen. It was a glorious demonstration that people never know what they can or cannot do," he said. 

He added: "Luck never comes to the unprepared. This company was preparing for this moment. We had to build breakthroughs that would change. We were looking at changing the whole company. We significantly increased the investments in digital and research. We all know that we can’t transform a company by changing the business portfolio or by changing the location. You can only transform it by changing the culture. If we didn’t have the courage to think big, we wouldn’t think of manufacturing three billion doses. That’s how we found solutions." 

He added that the joy for Pfizer wasn’t from developing the vaccine, but the pride it got from belonging to a group that is solving purposes. 

Then, amid the pandemic, and while the vaccine trials were in place, Pfizer rolled out its Science Will Win campaign. 

Explaining this and the role of digital, Bourla said, "At Pfizer, I was appointed CEO on January 1. On the same day, we appointed a chief digital officer. That was the first signal sent in the organization that digital will be the most important transformation tool at Pfizer." 

"During this time, the first role the CDO received was to digitize our discovery and development process of medicines. For example, usually, we need four weeks to do specific processes in formulating the vaccines. By using advanced analytics, however, and a supercomputing platform, we were able to do it in 18 hours. The moment this study was completed, in two-three days (versus five-six months), we had the tables ready for submission," he said. "Without digital, we wouldn’t be here even today.” 

Bourla explained Pfizer's decision to undertake a rebranding exercise during the pandemic along with the importance of mission and purpose for companies. 

"We are very excited about initiating a new, transformed Pfizer that is much more focused on science than before. The science was far more patient-centric than before. When Pzifer’s name and reputation skyrocketed because of the work that we did with the vaccine, I thought it was the right time to launch the new identity, because we were doing this at a time of being in a position of strength," he said. 

He added: "The brand mission guides everything we do. It’s very well-documented that corporations that stayed true to their mission and purpose, delivered way better than corporations that don’t. When you stay true to your purpose, you give good guidance to people on where they need to. But when your purpose is also so noble as in your case, your success is going to affect human lives. This is when it creates a passion and drive for each individual. The passion is what makes all the difference in the world."

This story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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