The pharmaceutical community seems to be involved in a fast race to get the most effective vaccine to fight the spread of Covid-19. The first company to release a high rate of efficacy was the American Pfizer. It was announced that the vaccine they are developing together with the German BioNTech is over 95% effective in adults. Just two days after the declaration, the European Commission approved a contract which provides an initial purchase of 200 million doses on behalf of all EU Member States.
Although some may think the person leading this company is an American chairman, a greek name suddenly appeared in international media after the big news: Albert Bourla. Yes, the CEO of Pfizer is a Thessaloniki-born citizen. He moved to New York in 2001 but kept a considerable link with the country.
In an interview with the journalist Alexis Papachelas in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Bourla says Thessaloniki “was and is still the centre of his life”.
The beginning of his career
Albert Bourla is a descendant of an old Jewish family based in Thessaloniki. He graduated from the 10th High School of Thessaloniki, at Iktinou and Tsimiski Street. Albert Bourla later studied at the Veterinary School in Aristotle University. He also owns a PhD in Biotechnology of Reproduction from the same University, according to Pfizer’s website.
As he explains, he wanted to make an academic career. However, things changed when Pfizer contacted him. They offered him to join their team as the Technical Director of Greece in the Animal Health Division in Athens. “I did not want to go to Athens because I love Thessaloniki. It was the centre of the world for me, but I finally accepted”, he says.
In the capital, he started his career within the pharmaceutical industry. This opportunity drove him to different leading positions across Europe. He finally moved to the headquarters from New York in 2001 and became the CEO of the company in 2019.
Considering Bourla left Greece when he was 34, he keeps his family and best friendships in Thessaloniki. Moreover, he comes every summer to spend his vacation in his house in Halkidiki. “My sister is in Thessaloniki; her children are in Thessaloniki. We have solid ties, and it is obvious everyone here in America tells me I behave in a rather typical Greek way”, he says.
And Greece did not want to miss the opportunity of having a greek CEO to score a point and celebrate the development of the vaccine. The Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis himself had an online meeting with Albert Bourla one day after the announcement. He “congratulate him on the results and on the completion of the contract with the EU to deliver the vaccine as soon as possible”, the PM said on Twitter.
A race to be the first
Polemics has recently surrounded Bourla. He has repeatedly been announcing that the results of the vaccine would be out by the end of October. It created hype and pressure over the scientific deadlines. “Right now, our model predicts that we will have an answer by the end of October”, the chief executive said on “Today” USA show on early September.
American media such as The New York Times then started to tie up his early declarations with Trump’s press conference on behalf of the vaccine. On September 7th, he said: “We’re going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before an exceptional date”. That day he could be referring to, was the Presidential Elections.
Releasing the first successful vaccine results during his mandate could have boosted Trump chances to win the elections. So the fact that Bourla publically spread this hopeful message so soon, and in the end did not happen until November 9th, created confusion and rumours on whether he wanted to support the former President.
The aftermath in the stock market
The last polemic came when Bourla sold 62% of the shares from the company. On the same day, he announced the vaccine was more than 90% effective in the first place (although later they changed it to 95%). Pfizer shares then opened 15% higher than three days before. Therefore, according to the numbers, the CEO would have pocketed 5.6 million dollars with that operation.
This could lead to the suspicion that he did not play fair. He might have received privileged information, foreseeing that the shares would shoot up with the long-awaited announcement. However, according to the company, they sold the shares via an automated system after they hit a certain price, under a plan set up in August.
The vaccination plan in Greece
Aside from the controversies that may fly above Pfizer and Bourla, now all the eyes are set on when the vaccine will be distributed. The country is in the middle of a severe second wave with nearly all the ICU’s full in Northern Greece. According to national newspaper Eznos, the optimistic scenarios are that the medical profession and caregivers will vaccinate around 500.000 people in January. If the plan is correctly followed, in the first half in 2021, there will be a sufficient level of citizens vaccinated. This will enable Greece to “leave this crisis behind”, according to the Prime Minister.
The fact that the CEO of Pfizer is Greek may lead to thinking that Greece will be one of the first European countries to get the vaccine. This statement is considering his close link with the authorities. But the current situation in Greece, with the health system about to collapse and the low number of ICU beds in the hospitals, shows up that prevention and investment on social welfare are vital factors to overcome this crisis. No matter who goes first on the race to find the best vaccine.