It’s not every day you get to meet a Jewish hero. Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, is deserving of the title due to his leadership in the development of the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, for which he received the 2022 Genesis Prize at a glittering ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater on June 29.
In an interview at the King David Hotel a day before, Bourla revealed that he would donate the million-dollar award to building a Holocaust museum in his hometown of Thessaloniki (Salonika).
“I come from a city that used to host one of the most vibrant Jewish communities: Salonika, a community known as ‘the little Jerusalem,’” he told me. “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.”
“This is a miracle of which all Jews should be very proud.”Dr. Albert Bourla
A miracle to be proud of
He praised Pfizer’s successful partnership with Israel in combating the pandemic, and said he was extremely impressed by the country during his first visit here in 45 years. “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.”
Wherever Bourla, 60, went in Israel – 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.”
Born to a family who survived the Holocaust in Thessaloniki, Bourla joined Pfizer in 1993, initially serving in Greece as a veterinary doctor for the company’s animal health division. He moved 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.
While Bourla is credited with steering Pfizer’s extraordinary global campaign against corona, he told me he is now working on adapting its technology to combat other diseases such as cancer.
Asked what it was like to partner with Israel in the vaccination campaign, Bourla replied: “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.”
My final question to Bourla was: What is your message to the Jewish people and Israel? “Israel has become an example to the world,” he responded. “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.”
That’s a pertinent message as Israel heads for another election on November 1.