Health and Science

Pfizer CEO calls Covid vaccine a 'great day for humanity' and a 'light at the end of the tunnel'

Key Points
  • "I think we can see light at the end of the tunnel" on the pandemic, Pfizer's Albert Bourla told CNBC on Monday.
  • . Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC the vaccine could be available in limited use as early as late December and widely available by the third quarter of 2021.
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Pfizer CEO on Covid vaccine efficacy: 'It is a great day for humanity'

Pfizer Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla told CNBC on Monday he believes the world "can see light at the end of the tunnel," after the U.S. pharmaceutical giant announced its coronavirus vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19 for those who had no evidence of previously being infected.

More than 50 million coronavirus infections have been recorded worldwide since the virus emerged in China in late December, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. At least 1,257,747 people have died. Nearly a fifth of all global infections and fatalities are in the U.S. The race to develop a safe and effective vaccine has been closely watched as companies accelerated a process that normally takes years.

"It is a great day for science. It is a great day for humanity when you realize your vaccine has 90% effectiveness. That's overwhelming," Bourla in interview with CNBC's Meg Tirrell on "Squawk Box." "You understand that the hopes of billions of people and millions of businesses and hundreds of governments that were felt on our shoulders. Now... I think we can see light at the end of the tunnel."

Dow futures surged nearly 1,600 point, or 6%, on the news from Pfizer and its vaccine partner Germany-based BioNTech. The pan-European Stoxx 600 was higher by more than 4%.

BioNTech and Pfizer's late-stage study is continuing after the positive interim analysis, with hopes for it to be completed by the end of the month, Bourla said. The companies will need to apply for emergency use authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, told CNBC the vaccine could be available in limited use as early as late December and widely available by the third quarter of 2021.

There are expected to be up to 50 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine produced this year and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021. The vaccine requires two doses per person. In July, the companies reached a nearly $2 billion agreement with the U.S. government to supply 100 million doses.

"Given how effective this vaccine is, and we are aware that the demand will be much higher than anything we can produce, we are also looking right now to see if there are other ways, thinking out of the box, that we can increase even further the manufacturing capacity," Bourla said.

Bourla noted the timing of Monday's efficacy news, which comes as the U.S. has continued to set new records for daily cases and some European countries implemented partial lockdowns in response to surging infections. "There's no time to be lost here," he said.

Bourla also addressed questions about the timing of the announcement less than a week after the U.S. presidential election. The Pfizer CEO said the election was always an artificial deadline and the data was going to be ready when it was ready.

President Donald Trump, who has refused to concede the election after Democrat Joe Biden was projected as the winner on Saturday, tweeted Monday morning about the "GREAT NEWS!" about the vaccine and the stock market surge. President-elect Biden also called it "great news."

Bourla said he has been cautiously optimistic throughout the development process about whether Pfizer's vaccine would be safe and effective. That is because with vaccines for other diseases, despite positive signs from phase one and phase two trials, "sometimes you fail on phase three," he said.

"I am very happy, but at the same time, sometimes I have tears in my eyes when I realize that this is the end of nine months, day-and-night work of so many people and how many people, billions, invested hopes on this," he said. "I never thought it would be 90%" effective, added Bourla, who has worked at Pfizer for over 25 years. He became CEO in January 2019.

There have been some public concerns about taking a Covid-19 vaccine, but drugmakers and regulators alike have taken steps to assuage those worries. In September, Pfizer and other companies developing a vaccine such as Johnson & Johnson and Moderna made a pledge to demonstrate their commitment to safety and scientific principles.

Bourla told CNBC he wants to be among the first people to take Pfizer's vaccine to show his confidence in it, should if receive approval from regulators. However, he acknowledged there ethical considerations at play. "If, for example, we have limited number of doses, I don't know if the government would recommend people of my age ... or work capacity to be among the first to get the vaccine so I want to respect that," said Bourla, who is in his late 50s.

He also thanked the more than 40,000 trial participants for volunteering, despite all the uncertainty. "I think the world owes them big time," he said.

"I believe this is likely the most significant medical advance in the last 100 years, if you count the impact this will have in public health [and] global economy," he said.

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