With the spread of the coronavirus around the world last year, Nanette Cocero GR93 WG94 found her work as global president of Pfizer Vaccines take on new significance. In the position, Cocero is responsible for the development and delivery of the company’s portfolio of vaccines, leading a team of roughly 1,500 colleagues. She caught up with Wharton Magazine to share insights on Pfizer’s role in producing the first COVID-19 vaccine to be authorized for use in the U.S., as well as other efforts to stem the spread of illnesses around the globe.
Wharton Magazine: Congratulations on being the first company alongside German partner BioNTech to receive authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. and for bringing it to market with historic speed. How does it feel to have achieved these milestones?
Nanette Cocero: Thank you. It is hard to sum up how I felt when we heard news about the temporary or emergency-use authorizations across the world — I felt just about every emotion! Overwhelmingly, I felt a sense of joy. Joy for my colleagues who have been working day and night in the fight against this pandemic, with no guarantee of success. And joy for every person on this planet — because everyone has been impacted in their own way by this pandemic, and everyone deserved some positive news. As each milestone passes, I feel more confident that our optimism hasn’t been misplaced, and, as we say at Pfizer, science will win!
WM: What factors made this record-breaking development possible?
NC: The response to COVID-19 has been truly unparalleled, and so many factors have influenced where we are today. Where do I start?
The first thing is how quickly we were able to mobilize following the outbreak of the pandemic. In March, less than a week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we announced our collaboration with BioNTech on a potential mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine. Our CEO, Albert Bourla, outlined our five-point plan. This included five promises to help scientists working anywhere in the world to more rapidly bring forward solutions to help protect humankind from COVID-19 and, importantly, to prepare the industry to better respond to global health crises in the future.
The spirit of collaboration that we have seen in this pandemic is something I hadn’t witnessed before but that I hope will continue long into the future. As an industry, we committed to work as one team to harness our scientific expertise, our technical skills, and our manufacturing capabilities to do everything in our power to get life-saving breakthroughs into people’s hands as quickly as possible.
Lastly, we stayed one step ahead at every stage of the development process. As just one example, we scaled up manufacturing of the COVID-19 vaccine, at-risk, while also setting up parallel supply chains. This means that our teams were equipped and ready to start distribution as soon as we received authorization — faster than we have done ever before.
WM: All eyes in the U.S. are now on distribution and efforts to overcome people’s concerns about inoculation. How is Pfizer helping to address what has become known as vaccine hesitancy?
NC: Our priority from the beginning of this pandemic was to develop a safe and effective vaccine. But it’s also true that any vaccine is only good for public health if the health-care providers and the public trust that it is safe. To that end, we’ve been very transparent throughout the process of creating the vaccine — about our trial, our data, our manufacturing process, and regulatory interactions.
We’re working with a variety of partners and advocacy organizations, particularly in underserved and hard-hit communities, to reach out, answer questions, and walk people through the basics of the science. We know that minority communities are greatly affected by this disease, so we are also supporting the development of specific content and education approaches to more effectively reach African-American and Hispanic populations.
One thing I always want to be clear about is this: Though the speed at which we have been working is unprecedented due to advancements in science and taking certain steps in parallel, our commitment to safety has not changed — and will never change. We will always move at the speed of science, and we will not cut corners — ever.
WM: How has the COVID-19 vaccine differed from others that you’ve helped to promote for global use?
NC: We have all seen the human impact of COVID-19. It has impacted everyone, no matter where they live. Globally, we have surpassed 1.5 million deaths, a number that 10 months ago seemed unimaginable to most people. The value of disease prevention to society is more apparent than ever, and so, the awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine is so high among the public. I haven’t witnessed anything like it, and it gives so much meaning to every day at work — as we all rally around a unified purpose.
But this also comes with challenges; expectations and hopes from everyone are so high. The whole world is looking at the pharmaceutical industry to help find solutions. This pressure can feel intense at times, but it is our duty to respond and also a great privilege. As our CEO said early on, “If not us, then who?”
WM: Throughout your career, you’ve pushed for greater access to vaccines in developing countries. What are the biggest challenges that we, as a global community, face in furthering this goal?
NC: Vaccines are one of the most successful preventative health tools of all time, second only to clean water. As a leader, I feel a profound sense of responsibility to ensure that everyone who needs a vaccine can access it, no matter where they live.
Barriers to vaccination are complex and varied. I have already touched on vaccine hesitancy. In developing countries, we must consider different challenges like infrastructure and cost. Covax is a very recent example of how the global community is coming together to overcome these barriers. This is a landmark collaboration that is being coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the WHO to support finding successful COVID-19 vaccines, and to ensure these can be rapidly — and equitably — distributed worldwide.
WM: With so much focus on the coronavirus, how have you managed to continue work on other vaccines?
NC: Thankfully, we have incredible colleagues around the world who haven’t missed a beat when it comes to our broader vaccines work. We’re fortunate at Pfizer to have the scale and resources to be able to do both — to help address the pandemic and keep advancing our vaccine efforts aimed at other infectious diseases.
In September, I had the opportunity to present our exciting vaccine pipeline at Pfizer’s investor day, and there was so much to talk about before even getting to COVID-19. I’m excited by the additional vaccine breakthroughs we are hoping to bring forward over the next five years and their potential to help protect people’s lives.
WM: Before completing your MBA, you obtained a doctorate in pharmacology at Penn and an undergraduate chemistry degree at Cornell. What led you to pursue an MBA? Was it always in the cards?
NC: I’ve had a passion for science and medicine for as long as I can remember. While I was at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing my doctorate, I was part of the pharmacology PhD program, but I had a growing interest in business and a curiosity about the kind of impact I could make outside of a research lab. I decided to enroll to pursue an MBA, in addition to my PhD. It wasn’t a conventional choice. But my long-term goal was to make a profound impact on global health — the same goal that drives me today — and I saw a path through the combination of science and business. Ultimately, I joined Pfizer because I believe the work we do to deliver breakthrough medicines and vaccines has the profound impact I was looking for.
WM: Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to mention?
NC: I want to end on a brief reflection on 2020. It was a year that will transform how we perceive preventative health care, but it should also be the year we convert this awareness to action and advocacy, in order to establish policies and build infrastructure that work to prevent disease. This is our shot to reduce health disparities and help ensure the sustainability of our health systems. I hope we take it.