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The National Herald's Person of the Year: Dr. Albert Bourla; CEO, Pfizer

Αssociated Press

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2019 file photo, Albert Bourla, chief executive officer of Pfizer, prepares to testify before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on drug prices, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Person of the year! Dear God, is 2020 really over? And, really, has it been just a single year? More so, who would even want to be the person of a year that has brought such pain and fear, such unmatched loneliness in the quarantined homes of our past gatherings, and in the exposed consciousness of our timeless frailty? 

The answer is, yes, 2020 is almost over. And, yes, despite all the many moments when it felt like the opposite, it has been just a single year. But, no, the person of the year is not the face of a year of struggle. As the final days fall out of this Pandora’s box of a year, The National Herald welcomes hope in the face of Dr. Albert Bourla.

Bourla, the Greek CEO of Pfizer, who oversaw bringing together a vast network of human and other resources to manufacture, market, and distribute the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against the COVID-19 pandemic, has become a household name of sorts -certainly so among Greeks. While other vaccines against COVID-19 have -and will continue to- become available, Dr. Bourla’s team were the first to announce that a solution had moved from the realm of desire to that of reality. Crossing that finish line before others meant that Pfizer/BioNTech got to set efficiency standards, define the market, and inspire faith in an economic rebound. It also meant that Dr. Bourla became the face of a renewed trust in science, of the belief that this pandemic can and will end.

History calling

None of this was certain, and the breakthrough that most will soon live with comes too late for many to make it through. Almost 1.8 million lives have been lost, and tens of millions of people have been infected, with many of them still trying to overcome lingering symptoms, or to cope with how the disease has taken from or of them. The total number of lives affected or scarred is incalculable. This is the measure of Dr. Bourla’s and his partners’ contribution: A weight to counter that of a shuttered way of life.

It has been a challenging process. A novel, promising, but practically untested, vaccine platform; production difficulties that have diminished the initially projected throughput; distribution hurdles that required supply chains to be redesigned. Oh, and the time pressures of a global pandemic that quickly fed on entrenched social inequalities, opposition to scientific thought and method, not to mention its own politicization. But the time it took for a vaccine to be developed is not the only condensed timeline in this story. 

Bourla, who originally joined Pfizer in 1993, was essentially handpicked by his predecessor, former Pfizer CEO Ian Read, to succeed him when he was appointed Pfizer’s Chief Operating Officer in January 2018. That post was said to have been created to provide Bourla the opportunity to mold his 26 years of experience into what would become his leadership style for the pharma giant. Among other roles, he had previously served Pfizer as Group President of Innovative Health Business; as Group President for the company’s Vaccines, Oncology and Consumer Healthcare businesses; and as General Manager of Established Products Business. In other words, he brought to the table institutional knowledge on the development and marketing of new products, management of the company’s most profitable sectors, and experience in safeguarding Pfizer’s portfolio. A year later, on January 1, 2019, the industry’s projections came true when Dr. Bourla assumed his duties as Pfizer CEO. A Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with a PhD in the Biotechnology of Reproduction, Dr. Bourla was the first medically trained Pfizer CEO in over 5 decades. 

Ten months into his tenure, it was announced that Dr. Bourla would succeed Ian Read as Chairman of Pfizer’s Board of Directors. Just shy of a year into his tenure, the first cases of then-unidentified SARS-CoV-2 infections were being recorded in China. In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was the first such challenge in over a century, and it called for that century’s worth of lessons. Bourla had just completed two months In his dual roles as Pfizer’s top executive.

While it can’t be denied that history was calling, it was more like Kissinger’s famous remark about calling Europe: It is not a single person who answers the call. Dr. Bourla is the first to admit as much, not just when talking about Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, but when talking about the fight against the pandemic, in general. Quick to share praise with his team, Bourla always points to the group effort that made the vaccine a reality. In an extensive interview with The National Herald, he noted: “I am humbled by what we have achieved over these last few months. Let me be clear this is a collaborative effort made possible by both Pfizer and BioNtech, as well as the many scientists and healthcare professionals around the world who worked with us.  Importantly, we must also thank the trial participants who made this all possible.” 

Moving from possible to probable

On the 7th night of Hanukkah, the embassy of Israel in DC honored Dr. Bourla by inviting him to participate in its virtual celebration. As he lit the candles in the video, the words “Nes Gadol Haya Sham (A great miracle happened there)” took on an entirely novel and topical meaning, while the miracle of a single cruse of oil lasting 8 days further highlighted how a nascent vaccine production capacity fuels the world’s hopes of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of all, as Dr. Bourla shared this personal moment of his online, on the digital stage where so many of our social interactions have been taking place for almost a year now, it was clear that, team effort notwithstanding, this was also the result of one person’s journey to that instance in time. So, for the man who celebrates the impossible having been made possible, when did that become probable? Here was a Jewish Greek-American, born to Holocaust survivors in Thessaloniki, having settled in New York after living in five different countries. He was being honored for the product of his cooperation with a Turkish-German scientist, BioNTech’s renowned co-founder and CEO, Uğur Şahin. When was all this made probable? When did it become Bourla’s future, his destination in life, that he would commit the production capacity of Pfizer to Şahin’s and BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine platform that ended up as probably the first good news of 2020? When was that course set?

Greeks know that such epics are not the products of merely setting a course. They are born of the commitment to a destination, no matter the twists and arrows of a journey’s fortune. Epic courses are always there when an Odysseus comes along. The head of all Greeks’ timeless Ithaca, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, points out as much in his message to The National Herald for Dr. Bourla’s award. “’The person of the Year’ is the face of the self-made Greek, who achieves greatness beyond borders thanks to his creativity, professionalism, and persistence. He is a link in the long tradition of diasporic Greeks’ prosperity and social contribution. And a worthy successor of the eternal Odysseus in the journey toward the Ithaca of success. For the international Albert is always the Akis of Greece and of his beloved Thessaloniki,” said the Prime Minister who further noted Dr. Bourla’s tireless work in establishing Pfizer research centers in Greece. “As the PM of a country at the forefront of the battle for public health, I see in him an irreplaceable brother in arms. And as a true friend of his, I honor his knowledge, his professional diligence, and his ethos.”

An answer to the beginnings of Dr. Bourla’s journey can be found also in the words of Panagiotis Giannakis, the legendary Greek basketball player, whom Bourla saw playing many times in Thessaloniki: “I am so happy for people like him, who were not afraid to pursue their dreams, who were not daunted by the comparisons with what Greeks at that time saw as mountain-like hurdles surrounding them. That’s what we did, as well,” Giannakis says, talking about the unstoppable ARIS B.C. of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and about the Greek national basketball team of the time. “We fought for it, because we couldn’t dream small. We dreamt big. Global stage big. So we are connected in this determination. I admire this man, with whom, in essence, we moved in tandem, without knowing each other, proving that, when you have dreams and faith in those dreams, you can reach heights that previously looked unattainable. We all thank him for the spotlight he turns on Greece, and on our country’s human resources. I think he will inspire greatly the young people growing up here -and not just here.” Being part of ARGO, an international community of Greeks that celebrates the achievements of the Hellenic diaspora, Giannakis had honored Dr. Bourla early on in his tenure as Pfizer CEO. Having followed his approach to leadership, the championship-winning coach echoes the same sentiments: “A good pass makes two people happy.”

It is the same point that Dr. Bourla’s father-in-law makes when he talks about “this extraordinary talent, this gifted person, who knows how to work with people. At Pfizer they love him because he will share every success with his colleagues, giving credit where credit is due. This is how he got, in relatively few years, at the top of this huge corporation.” Mr. Alchanatis also describes his son-in-law as “someone you feel is your old pal; simple, giving,” a next-door man who plays guitar and sings. “But he also radiates an immense energy, which immediately makes him not just likable, but something more than that. Just think that he was elected to the positions of CEO and Chairman of the Board unanimously. I remember one time when he was in Greece and we were at his summer home, and a couple of people who worked at Pfizer were staying next door, so they asked if they could come over to see him. He just went to their place himself. This is how he wins people over.”

I don’t know. I think that, these days, he might have at least one more way. And it comes in two doses.