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The mRNA vaccine transformed Pfizer. Here's how the biopharma giant plans to retain its new 'light-speed mentality' and create drugs faster.

Marguerite Ward   

The mRNA vaccine transformed Pfizer. Here's how the biopharma giant plans to retain its new 'light-speed mentality' and create drugs faster.

  • Annaliesa Anderson, a leader in vaccine research, shared how the pandemic changed Pfizer.
  • Anderson said employees embraced a "light-speed mentality" of doing things faster and simpler.
  • The company will apply mRNA tech to other areas and use new ways of thinking to solve problems.

The world isn't the same place it was three years ago, and neither is Pfizer.

The biopharmaceutical giant, along with its partner BioNTech, was one of the first to develop a marketable vaccine for COVID-19 using nascent mRNA technology. It was one of the fastest developments of a vaccine for modern medicine, forcing execs to ask what's next for a company that had shown it could compress the drug-creation process.

Pfizer, which has said it expects to pull in $32 billion in sales from its COVID vaccine this year, knows that it's set a high standard for innovation, collaboration, and R&D. COVID-19 forced a "paradigm shift" within the company, where execs and employees alike had to think and act differently, according to Pfizer's Uwe Schoenbeck, chief scientific officer of external research, development, and innovation.

"Pfizer's pandemic response focused on external partnership, reduction of bureaucracy, and a purpose-driven culture," Schoenbeck told Insider. "It taught us that what seems impossible at one point in time can be achieved, but also that it requires us to do things differently."

For Pfizer, priorities for the future include using mRNA technology to develop vaccines for other diseases like respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, the flu, as well as better treatments for cancer.

The mRNA, or messenger RNA, technology instructs cells to generate a protein that can then trigger an immune response. This type of technology, along with others, can speed up the drug-discovery process.

Below is a conversation with Annaliesa Anderson, Pfizer's senior vice president of vaccines research and development.

These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did the pandemic change Pfizer as a company? What old ways went out the window because of COVID-19 and what new strategies or new ways of thinking did you adopt?

We began communicating much more quickly — not waiting three days for an appointment to meet with someone.

We also changed our processes. You're no longer setting a strategy and then sitting back and watching that strategy unfold. You're looking at that strategy and reassessing it as you get new data. We asked ourselves "Does something need to be done in the way that we have done it before? Or can we look at things in a different way?"

A big piece of this was the fact that it was a technology that was unproven, mRNA. So we took, I wouldn't say "a risk." I would say "an opportunity" to really validate that technology.

What's a top priority at Pfizer in terms of innovation?

We now have the proof of concept for mRNA. So that's very exciting. mRNA technology has tremendous potential for other disease areas such as oncology and rare diseases. And so now the question is, "how can we now kind of move this technology into those areas?"

The flu is another area that we're working on. We've just started our phase-three study of a quadrant flu vaccine made out of mRNA. We see it has several advantages over current flu vaccines, including higher efficacy.

There is rapid change happening in medicine and science. What are you most excited about?

Our work on an RSV vaccine for older adults is a great story of partnership and innovation. People have been looking to develop RSV vaccines for over six decades. We've been able to show, in early studies, that our vaccine was highly effective at preventing RSV.

We've deployed what we call a "light-speed mentality." Would we have done it so quickly back in the day? No, we wouldn't. Hopefully, the next step is to submit it to the agencies for licensure, and then hopefully be able to have a vaccine that can prevent a really severe disease that has a high burden on healthcare and hospitals.

You mentioned a 'light-speed mentality.' Can you explain that?

Light-speed mentality is thinking through what's the best way to achieve what we need to achieve in a more straightforward route than we might have normally done it.

It's about how you can move a vaccine forward with urgency, without compromising safety.

Drug companies have typically been very secretive with their intellectual property. How do you think about collaboration now? And will there be more mergers and acquisitions?

Many companies, including Pfizer, have strategies where we build from within, we partner, and we also make strategic acquisitions. I think that that will remain pretty constant. I think there's a big interest in vaccines now. We're seeing a lot of smaller companies come through and start to really build some momentum in the vaccine space. So there will continue to be interest there.

Pfizer recently pledged to hire 500 refugees as a response to the recent Afghan and Ukrainian refugee crises. How do you expect this to enhance innovation?

Diversity is a critical part of what we do. It's through bringing people with diverse experiences, and talents that we can make breakthrough decisions.

We're a global company and we make medicines and vaccines for the globe. We need to appreciate the views of different people, whether it's different races, genders, or from different areas of the world. We need to encompass that.

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