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New COVID-19 vaccine that covers Omicron ‘will be ready in March,’ Pfizer CEO says

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla joins Yahoo Finance’s Anjalee Khemlani to discuss the development of a new COVID-19 vaccine that will include protection against Omicron, vaccine production, and the outlook for an Omicron-specific booster.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: As we mentioned earlier, the JP Morgan Health Care Conference does kick off today, a lot of CEOs speaking there, a lot of deals and collaborations being announced in advance of that. Our Anjalee Khemlani is here with us and with a special guest, Albert Bourla, who is the CEO of Pfizer. Anjalee, take it away.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Thank you, Julie, and hello to Albert. Thank you again for joining us today. I know that you and I were both looking forward to possibly seeing each other in person this time. But, unfortunately, Omicron got in the way.

I want to start off with talking about that, actually, and just the impact that you're seeing. We know that here in the US that, you know, we've had discussions about boosters coming this fall. And we're watching the Omicron wave really surge in certain parts of the country as well as the world.

Tell me what you're seeing in terms of the potential for possibly changing how we look at boosters and what kinds of boosters you anticipate. I know you're working on an Omicron-specific booster as well right now. So what's at stake for us in fall of '22?

ALBERT BOURLA: Here the situation has been deteriorated because of the Omicron, which had a very quick ramp-up. It is a disease that manifests a little bit less in terms of mildness. I mean, it's more mild. But, you know, because of the higher infectious rates, still, the hospitals, in absolute numbers, are going much higher in terms of severe disease, ICUs' occupation, et cetera, et cetera.

So-- and we know that the two doses of the vaccine offer very limited protection, if any. The three doses, with the booster, they offer reasonable protection against hospitalization and deaths-- and, again, that's, I think, very good-- and less protection against the infection.

Now, we are working on a new version of our vaccine-- the 1.1, let me put it that way-- that will cover Omicron as well. And, of course, we are waiting to have the final results. The vaccine will be ready in March. And the vaccine, we'll be able to produce it massively.

We need to see if we will need it. And we need to see if-- and what place it can take in the overall fight against the virus, particularly now that we know that mutations are coming faster, but we have a treatment. So all of that needs to be taken seriously [? in this direction. ?] But we've never had more weapons on our [? box tool. ?]

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely, and Pfizer, of course, taking the lead with that. I know that you've expanded of course, your collaborations on that front, especially with BioNTech for mRNA. But I want to quickly talk about the kids' vaccine before we get to that. I know that right now, there's a lot of parents waiting for that under five to come out. And the company has said that it's going to need to be a three-dose vaccine. Do you see that to be the case for adults as well, especially as we see that, while you do offer really strong protection, the waning immunity is an issue because it wanes pretty quickly?

ALBERT BOURLA: Yes. First of all, I don't have any doubts that this is also, for adults, a three-dose vaccine. And I think this is what basically everyone-- every health authority in the world-- is recommending right now. Now, the question is if we will need, let's say, annual boosters or not. But this is a three-doses of vaccine, particularly for the adults. What was the second question that you asked, Anjalee?

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Sorry, for the kids, the update on the timeline there, knowing that there are so many parents waiting for that under five. Do you have an updated timeline on when we can see that?

ALBERT BOURLA: I think that things will move fast. We are collecting, right now, data from the third dose. We are having, already, data from the second dose because two doses in younger kids is different than in adults. We are in discussions with FDA, and they will submit them-- everything to them. I hope that things can move very, very fast, actually, not in months, in a few weeks.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Sure, yeah. We're all waiting for that, for sure. And when you were talking about-- the treatments are also out there, but we also still need to meet global needs for vaccines. I know you've repeatedly said that you have had refusals for the vaccines. There's also vaccine hesitancy as an issue, especially in lower- and middle-income countries. Is that still the situation now? Have you found a change after you started shipping more towards the end of last year?

ALBERT BOURLA: Oh, yes. First of all, let's put some statistic out there. In 2021, we had said that we would produce over 3 billion doses, and we did. We released 3 billion doses, from which 2.6 billion, approximately, were shipped to countries. Among those 2.6, a billion were shipped to middle- and low-income countries, so 38%. So that's what we had promised, and this is what we have delivered.

Now, what is the situation, particularly for the lower income of this range? Right now, we have more than they can absorb, unfortunately. And I think all the efforts of the WHO, of UNICEF, of philanthropic organizations like Gates, Doctors Without [? Medicines, ?] and us should be in one fighting the misinformation in these countries and creating a vaccine advocacy and support because people are hesitant to do it in higher numbers than in the high-income countries.

But, also, there is a lack of infrastructure. Sometimes, it's difficult even to carry the vaccine to a vaccination center. We use-- we worked with a project to carry them with drones. It was very successful. The drones could carry, in these low temperatures, the vaccines.

But we didn't have where to take them, eventually, because they are not operating vaccination centers in the rural parts of the country. So all of these are issues that needs to be addressed. And that should be the focus of everyone right now.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Definitely.

ALBERT BOURLA: [? The ?] [? supply's ?] [? not ?] [INAUDIBLE].

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And, to that point-- absolutely. And, to that point, the mRNA really being a newer technology, for these countries to absorb that has been part of the issue. I know that you created that agreement with South Africa, the Biovac Institute. And, with the sort of investment that you're making in mRNA right now, expanding that agreement with BioNTech, that partnership, and moving into other vaccines, do you see this as more of a long-term plan? And do you see maybe resolving some of those transportation and logistical issues as part of your work there?

ALBERT BOURLA: Yes. I think the transportation and logistical issues has-- that are related to the nature of our vaccine, [INAUDIBLE] have been addressed. Right now, we are able to produce a new formulation that can stay two and 1/2 months in normal refrigeration, so like every other vaccine. So I don't think this is the issue.

The issue, it is that there are not people to inject. There's no health care practitioners. There is not a [? sender ?] to receive it so that people can come. And, very importantly, people are not queuing outside to get the vaccine, because they don't believe in that.

So these are the issues, mainly, that needs to be addressed. As regards to the investment we are doing in the area, it's not only on the COVID vaccine. But, clearly, we are investing a lot to make sure that we make better vaccines, the Omicron one, a vaccine that can cover Omicron in addition to everything else is, for example, a good example.

But we are also working-- we just announced three new deals today. One is with [? Beam ?] [? Therapeutics ?] that is trying to harness the power of mRNA in gene editing. The other is with Codex, which will potentially allow us to reduce the time in manufacturing of RNA from one month, which is the [? part ?] [? it ?] takes now to make the DNA, to maybe a few days-- very, very important.

And the other is licenses from Acuitas's LMP, 10 targets of LMP. LMP is the technology that uses lipid nanoparticles to transfer RNA to our tissues. So we truly believe that the mRNA technology is very powerful. It's not the holy grail, but it is very powerful. We are just scratching the surface. And we are very, very well positioned to put together capabilities of others and ourselves to produce medicines that the world needs.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. And, speaking of medicines that the world needs, we also see the antiviral, you know, making its way throughout the world, production of that still ramping up and deliveries as well. So, while supplies are constrained for right now, do you see that impacting, really, the pandemic in sort of the way that people have been anticipating, especially because it's coming a little bit after this Omicron spread?

ALBERT BOURLA: I think it's coming-- I wish we had it in larger quantities, but it came exactly the moment that you needed. I think it's a game changer. It is a game changer because we know that the people are getting way more sick-- first of all, they are unvaccinated people that they are getting hospitalizations. They are people that new variants don't protect. And, clearly, Omicron is not going to be the only variant that exists there. And this wave is not going to be the only wave that we are facing, unfortunately.

But this is the reality. The virus is endemic almost all over the world. And, also, both the natural infection and vaccinations, they don't produce lasting immunity against this virus. It's not that the vaccines that they have-- it is the virus that has these characteristics. As I said, even the natural infection produces even smaller, less durable immune responses.

And so the virus will be here for many, many years. And we are lucky that we have pills and vaccines of high, high, high effectiveness so that we can control it and go back to normal lives, which is the given right now--

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Right, absolutely.

ALBERT BOURLA: --which is [INAUDIBLE]--

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: We're all looking forward to that.

ALBERT BOURLA: --right now. This is what everybody is asking. Go back to normal life.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Certainly. And it certainly has set the stage for you to be able to expand, like you mentioned, in mRNA. So I believe that we're gonna be hearing a lot more about this. Unfortunately, we have to leave it there. But Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, thank you so much again for your time and helping us with our coverage for JPM this year. All the best, and look forward to speaking to you again soon. Julie, back to you.

JULIE HYMAN: Thanks, Anjalee. Appreciate it, and yes, indeed, back to normal is what we are all hoping for.