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Pfizer’s CEO on preliminary COVID-19 vaccine data

The drug company Pfizer announced Monday that early data indicates its COVID-19 vaccine could be highly effective. Their candidate is only one of a number in development, and it’s quite possible the world will ultimately need several vaccines made by different companies to bring the pandemic to an end. Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla joins William Brangham to discuss what comes next.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, there was a lot of excitement around Pfizer's announcement today that early data shows its COVID vaccine looks very effective. It is just one of a number of leading vaccine candidates to tackle COVID-19.

    And it's quite possible the world will need several vaccines made by different companies to eventually end the pandemic.

    We are going to look at this news in two parts. William Brangham has our breakdown.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the first thing to know — and we really cannot stress this enough — is that this is very initial data that was put out by Pfizer and its German partner the drugmaker BioNTech.

    But the result was beyond what many expected. Pfizer said initial results found its vaccine was 90 percent effective in preventing COVID among volunteers who had no prior infection.

    The data hasn't been published or reviewed by a medical journal yet, but Pfizer released it today, with the hopes of getting approval for use in the weeks ahead.

    Dr. Albert Bourla is the chairman and CEO of Pfizer, and he joins me now.

    Dr. Bourla, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Before we talk about the results, I wonder if you could just give me a sense of, as the CEO of this company, what was your reaction when you heard this news first come in?

  • Albert Bourla:

    It was a relief.

    I was feeling the pressure of the hopes of so many billions of people. I think that this is one of the most promising technologies. This was the one that had the most — the best result in terms of immunogenicity, in terms of in terms of cell immune, but we didn't know if it was translated into protection.

    And I was very worried. I was cautiously optimistic, but humanly worried, knowing the consequences if that was going to be negative.

    But from knowing that it is positive, all the way to knowing that it is positive, and 90 percent, which I never thought would be, that gave me a joy that I cannot describe.

  • William Brangham:

    Initially, the FDA said that it set a benchmark of 50 percent efficacy for a vaccine. You guys are reporting 90 percent efficacy.

    But what do we know the data is saying about what this is exactly protecting against?

  • Albert Bourla:

    It has examined all people, whether they have been sick.

    The people are coming to their side, the clinical side, typically hospital, and if they have symptoms, and then they are examined by a physician. Then they are to — taking samples. They take the samples and they send those samples in the central lab.

    And we are testing if they have COVID or not.

  • William Brangham:

    So, right now, we still don't know whether or not this protects against developing the disease or developing a more serious infection? Those results will come later?

  • Albert Bourla:

    I think we know if it protects against the disease. We don't know yet, because we haven't seen this data, if and how many of these cases were severe cases or light cases.

    Only a group of independent experts, independent from Pfizer, that they are allowed to have a look in the unblinded data.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if you get approval, can you give us a sense of when people might start seeing this vaccine distributed? And what kind of numbers do you estimate?

  • Albert Bourla:

    We hope that we will be able to produce approximately 50 million doses this year, approximately 1.3 billion doses next year.

    To put things into perspective, 50 million doses means 25 million people. And this is a global production. So, if the U.S. receives, let's say, 20 millions of this, let's say 50 or 25, it receives half of it, this means that, in the U.S., we will have 12.5 million people that we can protect.

    It's a small number, compared to the totality of the population. It is, of course, a gigantic step, because those 12.5, if used strategically, could be the people that they are more likely to get the disease, like first-line workers, very sensitive population, et cetera.

  • William Brangham:

    You didn't take initially federal government money from the U.S. government for its Operation Warp Speed. I know you did sign a separate production deal with the U.S. government.

    Some members of the Trump administration and members of the Trump family have suggested something suspicious about the timing of this, that former Vice President Joe Biden is declared the winner of the presidency, and then this news comes out from Pfizer.

    Can you speak to the timing of this? Was political consideration in this at all in this announcement?

  • Albert Bourla:

    Of course, there was no political considerations in the timing of this announcement.

    And there was nothing political in the whole process to develop this vaccine, despite the fact that it was discussed, unfortunately, in political terms, rather than scientific terms.

    I had sent a letter to our employees just two days after the first presidential debate in the U.S., telling them that some people are telling us to move faster, and some people are telling us to move slower. We are going to move with the speed of science.

    And this is exactly what we did. And if the results were coming in October, as I was predicting, we will have told them in October. They came a bit later, and we disclosed the results immediately.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, thank you very much for being here.

  • Albert Bourla:

    Thank you very, very much.

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