COVID-19 gives Big Pharma a chance to fix its image
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The key to surviving the pandemic lies in the hands, not of governments, but of biopharma companies. Their ability to find and manufacture tests, therapies and vaccines will determine whether and when we can return to anything like normal life.
I spoke Friday with Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, and asked him how much of his time he is spending on that effort. “Most of my time. The vast majority of my time,” he said. “In a sense, it’s the vast majority of everyone’s time” at Pfizer.
In our discussion of the company’s search for solutions, three things stood out.
First, Bourla—like other pharmaceutical executives I have talked with—says there has been an unusual degree of cooperation in the industry. “I always say to my people, the other pharmaceutical companies are not the competition. The competition is the disease. This is even more relevant today. We are collaborating like never before.”
Second, and related, the main focus is on finding science that works, not on generating profits, and not on protecting intellectual property that has driven those profits in the past. “This is not business as usual. ROI should not drive our decisions at all. The question is: Can we do it? And when can we do it?”
Third, the pandemic has dramatically enlivened the company’s work force. “The word is proud. It’s as if this were a World War. They feel very proud of what we are doing.”
That’s a big change for an industry that earned a reputation for pushing its product regardless of consequences (think opioids), for pricing that product to achieve maximum short-term profits (think Shkreli and Valeant), and for deprioritizing science and research in pursuit of profit. “Pfizer was already transforming before COVID” hit , Bourla says, from a commercial machine to a scientific powerhouse. As a result, he believes, the company after the crisis “will be at the forefront of leading the way in demonstrating contribution to society.” He was one of the CEOs last year who signed onto the Business Roundtable’s statement calling for a greater focus on companies’ contribution to stakeholders beyond just shareholders. “It was clear for us that our business model was not sustainable if we don’t create value for patients and value for society.”
As for the critical effort to develop a vaccine, Bourla was optimistic. “Vaccines normally take years to build. They presented me with a plan that would take 18 months. I said, ‘How about 6 months?’ They all stepped up to the challenge. If things go according to plan, if we don’t face technical issues, we hope to have millions of doses by the end of the year, and hundreds of millions by next year.”
A success like that could go a long way toward changing the industry’s battered public image. “It is an opportunity to reposition in the minds of everyone the value proposition of our industry.”
More news below. And be sure and read Fortune’s new list of the World’s 25 Greatest Leaders who are addressing the pandemic. You can find the list here.
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AROUND THE WATER COOLER
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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.