Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, says he experienced two very different reactions in society related to the development of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine. The first was a hero’s welcome.
“Our employees were going to supermarkets, people saw they were wearing something indicating Pfizer and would say ‘the groceries are on us,’” he told Dean Bill Boulding of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business as part of the school’s Distinguished Speakers Series. “They would go to restaurants and they wouldn’t let them pay the bill because they felt that Pfizer had enabled the restaurants to reopen. It was beyond any imagination.”
Bourla says the other reaction was less positive – distrust of the vaccine which Bourla says was rooted in the polarization of health care. Bourla said political debate had always been around specific issues, like the cost of a drug.
“But it was never in the center of the debate, if we should vaccinate or not, take antibiotics if we have fever or not,” Bourla said, “That was not a political question. That was always a question of your doctor.”
Bourla says polarization of health treatments is an example of just how divided society has become.
“I used to say that it used to be that the political spectrum was a line, so the far left and the far right were far apart,” Bourla said, “Now it is a circle…the far extremes.”
Bourla believes most people are in the center and want to work together, but he says there is a new challenge, with the rampant spread of inaccurate information.
Bourla believes the polarization around the vaccine and other health measures was fueled by both misinformation and disinformation. Bourla says misinformation can result from confusion or not having access to credible information, but can be innocently spread.
Bourla says disinformation is intentional.
“I think about disinformation–willingly and knowingly spreading malicious information that has usually tried to appeal to the most basic instincts of people, which could be fear, which could be xenophobia, which could be any of those things,” Bourla said. ”And that is focusing now on the science, it used to be…when the scientists were speaking, there was one voice…people in general, they knew what to believe because this is what the science said.”
Bourla says now on social media the contrarian voice of one scientist can be given equal weight to 99,000 others in agreement—creating the appearance of much debate, when there really is almost none.
“I think we are in a very big crisis in society because of that,” Bourla said, “The Holocaust didn’t start in Auschwitz, but with Goebbels, who started spreading disinformation about the Jews, how they are malicious, evil. He prepared the public opinion for the crimes that followed.”
Bourla estimates the number of people spreading disinformation is about 3 percent of the population—with only about 15 percent of people believing it. He believes the key to stopping disinformation is for the rest of the population to speak up in support of science.
“We should also speak, because we have voices of the 85% who know that this is this is nonsense,” Bourla said.
Bourla also acknowledges distrust of systems has contributed to the polarization.
“And there is no doubt that the reason why also disinformation is thriving is because there was a systemic mistrust of the establishment of a system,” Bourla said. “The system failed us, in multiple ways, failed to rise to expectations. But the system is 10,000 times better than the people that are spreading this disinformation.”
The company’s role in speaking out
Bourla says individuals must speak out on societal issues, but so should companies.
Pfizer has created a framework for when to speak out that weights the following dimensions in a decision:
- Affects the mission to develop treatments
- Inhibits innovation to develop treatments
- Affects the wellbeing of employees, particularly marginalized communities
- Affects the larger environment with implications for everyone
“Many times, we weigh in on topics that are in gray zones as well,” Bourla said, “because we feel there is a demand we should take a position. But it is not easy, today, to know when we should speak and when to stay silent.”
Bourla said Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues are an imperative for Pfizer.
“We want to be our industry’s leaders on ESG,” Bourla said. “All the three letters are relevant to us”
Bourla says environment is relevant, because it affects everyone’s health. He says governance is important in acting ethically as a company. However, society is the area where Bourla feels the company can most contribute.
“Giving access to our medicines to all, and help solve issues of health inequality is tremendously important for us,” he said.
Bourla said ESG goals aren’t just good for society, but are good for the business.
“We are matching the desires of the people who are investing the money,” he said.
Editor’s note: To read more about Bourla’s thoughts on leadership and his personal leadership journey, see this piece.