COVID-19 hero: Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla reflects on the past, future

Bourla revealed that he would donate the $1 million award to building a Holocaust museum in his hometown in an interview for The Jerusalem Post.

 DR. ALBERT BOURLA on the King David Hotel’s rooftop overlooking Jerusalem, on June 28, ahead of the Genesis Prize ceremony.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
DR. ALBERT BOURLA on the King David Hotel’s rooftop overlooking Jerusalem, on June 28, ahead of the Genesis Prize ceremony.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, is an international Jewish hero who led the worldwide war against the pandemic. He is also a mensch.

In an interview at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Tuesday ahead of receiving the 2022 Genesis Prize for his leadership in the development of the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Bourla revealed that he would donate the $1 million award to building a Holocaust museum in his home town of Thessaloniki (also known as Salonika)

During the interview, he praised Pfizer’s successful partnership with Israel in combating the pandemic and said he was extremely impressed by the country. “This is a miracle, what is happening here in Israel, which is right now one of the most advanced nations in the world,” he said. “This is a miracle of which all Jews should be very proud.”

“This is a miracle, what is happening here in Israel, which is right now one of the most advanced nations in the world.”

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

Wherever the 60-year-old Bourla went in his first visit here in 46 years – from the ANU Museum to Yad Vashem – he was treated as a celebrity, and he graciously allowed people to take photographs with him. At all times, his modesty and humanity shone through. As Genesis Prize Deputy CEO Sana Britavsky put it, “Albert himself is a humble man, but also a remarkable Jewish phenomenon. The story of his roots, commitment to his identity and how this identity influenced his achievements, is a fascinating one.”

“Albert himself is a humble man, but also a remarkable Jewish phenomenon. The story of his roots, commitment to his identity and how this identity influenced his achievements, is a fascinating one.”

Sana Britavsky

Born to a family who survived the Holocaust in Thessaloniki, Bourla joined Pfizer in 1993, initially serving as a veterinary doctor and technical director for the company’s animal health division in Greece. He immigrated to the US in 2001 and worked his way up the corporate ladder to CEO at the beginning of 2019. He lives today in Scarsdale, New York, with his wife, Myriam, with whom he has a son and daughter.

 SPEAKING AT the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, May 25. (credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters) SPEAKING AT the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, May 25. (credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Bourla is credited with leading Pfizer’s extraordinary campaign against COVID-19 around the world, and he is now working on adapting its technology to treat other diseases such as cancer.

How did you receive the announcement that you were this year’s laureate of the Genesis Prize?

I got a phone call from the president of the Genesis Prize. I was really shocked. I didn’t expect it. I said, “I don’t know what to say.” He said, “Good luck,” and that was it.

What does the Genesis Prize mean to you?

It’s a very important recognition for me. I was blessed to be recognized by many countries and institutions, but when you receive something that comes from your own people, it matters way more. It’s an award that has been given so far to some of the most distinguished Jews in the world, so I was really humbled.

What do you plan to do with the prize money?

That was an easy decision for me. I come from a city that used to host one of the most vibrant Jewish communities – Salonika, a community known as “the little Jerusalem.” It was a very big Sephardi community, which had the highest extermination rate of all cities in the world during the Holocaust: 96%. Of 50,000 Jews, only 2,000 survived. We do not have a Holocaust museum that reflects the tragedy that happened there, and so the money will go to build and support a museum there.

Is there a construction plan? 

Yes, it will be built on the premises of the old railway station in the city, where all Jews were loaded into the trains and most were taken to Auschwitz and others to Treblinka. The community has secured the land and already has the first architectural plans, and I want to get involved and push in all directions so that we can start building very soon.

 ON HIS visit to Yad Vashem, with his wife, Myriam (L), Yad Vashem chairman Danny Dayan (Second from R) and Genesis Prize Foundation chairman Stan Polovets (R).  (credit: LENS PRODUCTIONS) ON HIS visit to Yad Vashem, with his wife, Myriam (L), Yad Vashem chairman Danny Dayan (Second from R) and Genesis Prize Foundation chairman Stan Polovets (R). (credit: LENS PRODUCTIONS)
As the son of parents who survived the Holocaust, what was it like to visit Yad Vashem on Monday?

It was my second visit to Yad Vashem. My first was as a kid. There are no words to describe it. On my way out someone told me, “You never come out of Yad Vashem the same way you go in.” It’s exactly the feeling I felt.

How has Israel changed since your last visit 46 years ago?

Although I wasn’t here physically, I’ve always been close to Israel, closely following what’s happening here and I have many Israeli friends, so I have a very good understanding of what’s happening here. On my first visit 46 years ago, I remember that it was the day of Operation Entebbe in Uganda. I was 15 years old at the time, and I remember that when I landed, everybody was celebrating. My impression of those days was an impression of pride. I was coming from Greece and here I found a way more developed nation. And now I’m even more impressed. This is a miracle, what is happening here in Israel, which is right now one of the most advanced nations in the world. This is a miracle of which all Jews should be very proud.

How do you see your connection to your Jewish values, the Jewish people and Israel?

We grew up in a very small community. As I said, 2,000 survived but only 700 remained in the city. Many went to Israel, many went to Athens. We learned to support each other. We learned that we need to stay strong together and we learned that there is a safe harbor for all of us: Israel. This is what my father taught me, this is what my mother taught me. They knew that their kids may have a better future because if something goes wrong again, there is no other place in which we can be safe. So that creates a Jewish identity that is stronger than anything else and it’s very deep inside me – the feeling that I belong to a nation, that I belong to a people. We have been different; we kept our traditions despite the persecution, and we thrive despite the envy and the attacks by many over the years. I feel very proud of our religion.

What was it like, as CEO of Pfizer, to partner with Israel in the vaccination campaign?

Of course, it was a fantastic feeling. I said many times around the world that Israel deserved what it received because it was the best country in the world to partner with and demonstrate that there is hope. Basically, that’s what it’s about: that the dark days of the pandemic can disappear with the use of the vaccine. But the fact that I was able to help my people was very, very important.

We seem to be experiencing a new wave, even though the fourth vaccine has been shown to be effective. How do you see things developing? Do you recommend that people get a fifth vaccine?

I’ve always been very careful to rely on the recommendations of each country and authorities because every country has very unique characteristics, and the people running things – particularly in Israel – are very skillful and know exactly what needs to be done. There is a new wave. I believe that not everybody has done the fourth dose and we also have the Omicron variant right now, which is more challenging to control. The vaccine, as Israeli data has proven, reduces the chances of going to hospital or dying.

What is your recommendation to governments and people about how to cope with this variant? Should we wear masks?

I don’t make recommendations for governments. I give them data and they make recommendations. Here in Israel, there is a recommendation for the fourth dose, and people right now don’t need to have the social distancing measures that we used to have. There is a lot of pressure for people in all places in the world to get our lives back. But there are reasons why we can do it now. There is a very large percentage of vaccinated people and we have treatments. Right now there are oral treatments that dramatically reduce the chances that you’ll get a serious disease. With all the medical tools we have, I think people can live their lives.

In what way has Pfizer’s treatment changed our world?

First of all, on the positive side, by giving hope to people. For me, the most touching letters were letters that I received from elderly people who were living in isolation. After the circulation of the vaccine, they told me that they can’t appreciate enough how it changed their lives, and allowed them to spend time with their grandchildren. But also there is the message of hope because of human ingenuity. It was a very challenging technical task, but science won and we were able to do what was perceived as impossible. It was another big victory that gives us confidence for the next big health challenge that the world will face.

Do you see Pfizer’s mRNA technology being used for the treatment of other diseases such as cancer?

Yes, absolutely. mRNA’s first application and research work started on cancer. We still don’t have any cancer medicine based on this technology but there is a lot of work that’s happening around the world right now and I’m very hopeful that within the next couple of years we’ll have good news about this. But also the mRNA technology can be used in many other applications and vaccines for other diseases, such as genetic diseases that people are born with. I think we are just scratching the surface of what the technology can deliver. Having said that, it’s not a panacea which will give solutions to all medical problems. Many other technologies right now are equally exciting.

Looking back at the pandemic, the investment in your vaccine campaign was a gamble that paid off. What did you learn from the experience?

The most important lesson for me was that if you task your people with a very difficult goal, the first reaction is to lower the bar. If you don’t lower the bar and insist that the goal remains the goal and you provide the resources, you will be surprised how much they can do. That was a serious lesson to me, and we hope to repeat that with cancer.

What are your plans for the future?

I have a job that I love. I have a team that is a joy to work with and I hope that my remaining years will be as productive as the previous years. 

Has being in the spotlight as a celebrity, a pandemic hero who appears on ‘The Jerusalem Post’ list of the world’s top Jews, changed your life? 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t asking for it, but now I’m a public figure and a role model so I need to be very careful of what I say and what I do. I try to use this spotlight on me to do something positive. This is why I chose to speak a lot about my Jewish identity. I’m very proud of it and maybe I can also use the lights on me to speak about something that happened 70 years ago in the Holocaust. For me, it is extremely important to always give a good example to those who believe in me. With this responsibility there is also the loss of privacy, but I am very proud to be recognized.

What is your message to the Jewish people and Israel?

Israel has become an example to the world. Everybody – those who hate us and those who love us – know that we are able to do things that no one else has done. Not only Jews throughout the years but Jews who build this country, Israel. I think the message I’d like to give is this: Try to stay as united as you can, and don’t let small things divide you. There is something bigger, which is the future of Israel. ■