Shift: Ben Osborn says Pfizer is now able to widen its research into other diseases
Pfizer’s UK boss Ben Osborn sprang out of bed last Monday morning with one burning thought in his mind. People his age – the 40 to 49-year-olds – had just become eligible for a Covid booster jab and he was determined to be among the first to get it.
‘Before I even had my coffee, I thought the system’s open, and within two minutes it was in the diary,’ says Osborn, 44, who signed up like everyone else.
He will receive the jab this week, exactly a year since the vaccine America’s Pfizer and German partner BioNTech developed was approved in the UK.
Osborn vividly remembers watching 90-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan receive the first Covid vaccine in the western world – a Pfizer jab in Coventry. It was a proud, career-defining moment, he explains, adding: ‘I’ve seen that clip umpteen times, I watched it back the other day and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up again.’
It’s also just over a year since Osborn first revealed to The Mail on Sunday that Pfizer had stacks of vaccines ready to go pending approval at its vast manufacturing site in Puurs, Belgium. Since then, there have been production squeezes due to upgrading those facilities, repeat UK Government orders for more doses and political bunfights over supplies.
Last week, emergence of the Omicron Covid variant has stoked concerns it may be able to evade the protection of current vaccines. Testing has already begun against the variant with initial data due in weeks.
The pharmaceutical giant is on track to produce more than three billion doses this year – up from an original target of 1.2billion.
Pfizer has said its mRNA technology gives it the flexibility to develop new vaccine variants in as little as 100 days.
Osborn says, in the UK, the ‘Covid situation feels much more under control than it did 12 months ago’, due to the success of the vaccination programme.
He adds: ‘I’m incredibly proud of the small part Pfizer has played in supporting the NHS.
‘It has been a year like we’ve never experienced before. It’s shown the importance of a thriving life sciences sector. Friends, family, neighbours, strangers in the street appreciate the work Pfizer brings to health and the economy.’
Not everyone has been so appreciative. The clean-cut executive recounts having some ‘blunt’ conversations with anti-vaccine advocates. He welcomes the debate, but says he typically questions the sources of their information compared with documented medical research.
‘It’s frustrating but it’s part of the job. The most important message is, yes, it’s been done at speed but no corners have been cut. I think the biggest reassurance I would give is that I would give the vaccine to my six-year-old daughter tomorrow, if that were authorised.’
It’s a timely intervention for the executive who has spent two decades with Pfizer and was recently also appointed head of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
Experts and regulators are considering whether to approve its use in five to 11-year-olds, potentially for a spring roll-out.
Last week, his rival, AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot, was out in public proclaiming the efficacy of his own vaccine – specifically that its widespread use in the UK may have limited the number of hospitalisations relative to parts of Europe, where its use had been restricted and cases are rising.
This time, Osborn declined to be drawn into a debate, with the analysis to back Soriot’s claim yet to be published.
But he hopes Britons will welcome their booster shots with the memory of last year’s festive restrictions still fresh. ‘Clearly Christmas is going to be an important occasion for all of us but I’m very encouraging of everybody to come forward to get boosted not just for Christmas but beyond into next year.’
He says normality is returning, with a couple of recent trips to watch rugby at Twickenham and Cardiff. But he admits the pandemic has made life even harder for many – his elder son George, 14, has a rare form of epilepsy and has had his education at a special needs school disrupted, as well as his own ‘ultra running’ hobby. Discussions are ongoing over whether more jabs will be needed in 2022. He says, ‘We will likely see a need for some level of boosting in subsequent years’.
The UK has ordered 135million doses from Pfizer in total, more than any other jab, and Osborn assures that ‘supply of our vaccine is not an issue in the UK’.
A contract to produce the injection in Britain for the first time begins in April in Swindon.
Osborn is keen to harness the Covid momentum which has made the pharma firm – which operates from labs in Sandwich, Kent, in the UK – a household name.
He says: ‘We’ve shown that we could develop a vaccine in 259 days. So it’s about how we did that, and making sure we apply those learnings more broadly.’
He cites a promising rapidly developed pill aimed at Covid patients as a ‘potential gamechanger’. And, in a message likely to cheer patients sidelined during the NHS’s Covid firefighting, he adds: ‘We’re looking at how we can bring that same level of emphasis to other disease areas – the cancers, rare diseases, cardiovascular disease, immunology.’
New developments could help Pfizer justify the huge profits it is expected to reap from the scramble by governments to tackle a global emergency.
Vaccine revenues are expected to hit $36billion this year, up from $33.5billion in 2020.
‘We didn’t take any Government funding, we invested some $2billion prior to even having a vaccine authorised and we have continued now to scale that research to other disease areas,’ Osborn says.
This month, Pfizer upped its forecasts for research and development spending by $400 million to $10.4 billion to $10.9 billion this year.
‘That allows us to be ready for future pandemics,’ Osborn says.