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How Pfizer’s CEO ruthlessly cut bureaucracy to deliver a COVID vaccine in record time

November 16, 2021, 4:15 PM UTC

Pfizer has undoubtedly changed the world with its COVID-19 vaccine, which has been injected into millions of arms globally in an effort to stop the spread of the virus and keep people healthy.

Last year, the pharmaceutical company’s teams worked at record speed to develop and test an mRNA vaccine, which uses the information in a person’s cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response.

“It was a time that the world was really scared. It was a time we were all living things we had never lived before, never thought we would live,” Pfizer chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla told the audience at Fortune’s CEO Initiative on Monday in Washington, D.C.

Saving lives and ending lockdowns were huge motivators, of course. But Bourla credits certain strategic decisions made by the company with helping it move more quickly toward a vaccine.

The CEO says Pfizer focused on ending internal and external bureaucracy that would otherwise slow its scientists down. The drugmaker didn’t take money from the government, because Bourla said Pfizer scientists would then have to lose time in committee meetings meticulously detailing how they were spending public funding. 

Bourla also made sure to embed himself with teams so decisions could be made faster. 

In organizations, “because of the silos, it is very difficult to make decisions,” he said. Having the CEO or another executive in meetings helped speed up Pfizer’s process. 

Pfizer’s team also operated with a sense of purpose, which he said was framed by the question: “If not us, then who?”

“It was a time that the people needed to rise to the occasion, no matter what,” said Bourla. 

One year after the first vaccine trial results were released, Pfizer’s impact has been undeniable. In addition to the vaccine, Pfizer also has an antiviral pill.

“If we didn’t have a vibrant life sciences sector, we wouldn’t be here today,” said the CEO.

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