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Two tales of innovation from CVS and Pfizer

October 29, 2020, 9:59 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

Innovation takes many forms. One form may be, say, transforming the way you think about your purpose in an industry. Another may involve rising to the urgency of the moment with technological advances.

I mention this because two very different kinds of health care companies’ chief executives discussed that exact dichotomy of innovation during Fortune‘s virtual Global Forum this week.

The highlights which come to mind are the stories of CVS Health (a major provider for COVID testing during the pandemic) and drug giant Pfizer (which has one of the leading candidates for a coronavirus vaccine).

CVS CEO Larry Merlo pinpointed the company’s evolution to a specific moment: Its decision to leave a lucrative tobacco business behind to become a true health firm.

“It’s a great story in the evolution of our company. We looked at our strategy at that time in terms of becoming more of a health services company,” said Merlo during an interview at the event. “We had our CVS pharmacies; we had CVS Caremark as a leading pharmacy benefit management company; we were opening our retail clinics branded as MinuteClinic.”

Merlo said that a point came when CVS could no longer justify selling a product which kills millions of people, even if that decision ate into its bottom line to the tune of $2 billion. That crucial decision was perhaps the first domino to fall in the company’s ambitions to become a provider of basic medical services within local communities.

The other firm is Pfizer. While there are a number of prominent drug makers (and some not-so-prominent ones) attempting to make a COVID vaccine, Pfizer realized early on that its own experimental therapy required supplementary materials.

You see, Pfizer’s candidate, should it be authorized or approved by the FDA, would require intense refrigeration at temperatures as low as negative 112 degrees Fahrenheit. So it figured out a way to make it happen: Design a high-tech carrying case that can freeze it at such temperatures while monitoring the location and temperature of every dose.

“The logistics of medicines and distribution of medicines are always very complicated, because there are always storage conditions,” said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla during the Fortune Global Forum. “And we knew that we had to move very fast. So we wanted to make sure that we can distribute by plane, we can distribute by any type of vehicle without needing refrigeration individually.”

Read on for the day’s news, and see you next week.

Sy Mukherjee


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