Pfizer’s CEO is still hopeful for COVID vaccine progress by October—and says a sense of purpose is fueling him


Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla on Wednesday reiterated his optimistic view that the company’s experimental coronavirus vaccine is a strong contender and may potentially cross key barriers on the way to the public by the fall.

“I think by the end of October we have a very good chance to know if the vaccine works or not,” Bourla said during a virtual panel discussion moderated by Fortune CEO Alan Murray.

Bourla emphasized that the vaccine, which is being jointly developed with the German biotech firm BioNTech, would have to be validated through Phase III clinical studies in order to establish safety and efficacy. However, Pfizer believes through its modeling that there’s a more than 60% chance the companies will know by the end of October whether or not it actually works.

“We’ve vaccinated a very large number of people either with the vaccine or the placebo, and then we let them live their lives,” Bourla said.

This is the essence of drug development, the randomized clinical trial that helps determine whether or not an experimental treatment actually has a significant effect. In the case of a pandemic, letting people live their lives will inevitably mean exposure to COVID—and, as Bourla put it, it’s critical to measure the difference in infection between study participants given the placebo versus those given the experimental vaccine.

“I’m very confident,” said Bourla. “Within a month we’ve had almost 26,000 people vaccinated.”

The theme of the Fortune session was purpose-driven business, and Bourla spoke to that as well. “Every time my team told me we’d have to wait till mid-2021, I’d tell them, ‘Go back and calculate how many more people would die if we don’t have something by this fall,’” he said.

And while Pfizer says it has no plans to put profits before patients during a global outbreak, and will base its pricing on maximal accessibility, Bourla still feels it will help the company in the long run: “Bringing a vaccine will be a breakthrough; I’m not a saint, but by doing good science, we’ll also be making money.”

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