Growing complacency about Covid-19 and the politicization of the pandemic response will cost lives as new waves of the virus sweep the world in the coming months, Pfizer’s chief executive officer has warned.
Albert Bourla said people were “tired” of measures to slow the spread of the virus while “politicians look to claim victory”. Compliance with authorities’ requests for booster shots would decline even among those who are already vaccinated, he predicted.
This, combined with waning immunity from previous infections and vaccinations, would likely result in “constant waves” of Covid variants and deaths, he said.
“I feel when I discuss [Covid] With my friends, people are willing to compromise and lower the bar: maybe we can accept that some more old people die, [rather] than having to work with a mask,” Bourla said in an interview in Davos, Switzerland, where he noted that few attendees at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting were masked.
“What worries me is the complacency,” he said, adding that the consequences could be visible in three to six months.
According to Airfinity, global demand for Covid vaccines, such as those developed by Pfizer with the German company BioNTech, has halved since the beginning of the year. The health data group said people in rich nations are reluctant to get repeat booster shots, while vaccination hesitation is widespread in poorer countries.
Pfizer on Wednesday unveiled an initiative to offer all of its patent medicines and vaccines, including the Covid vaccine, to 45 low-income countries on a not-for-profit basis.
Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda were the first countries to join the Accord for a Healthier World. Countries would help identify and overcome hurdles beyond drug supplies, Bourla said, such as the need to improve diagnosis, education, infrastructure and storage.
Pfizer has invited other pharmaceutical companies to join the initiative, which is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and asked governments, global health regulators and philanthropists to provide public and private funding.
Bourla said the initiative was not linked to Pfizer’s opposition to an India-South Africa-led proposal at the World Trade Organization to give nations the flexibility to waive patents on Covid vaccines.
“I don’t connect the two at all. Honestly, I think it’s something that’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, said that while Pfizer’s plan is welcome news, it should not be left to non-profit companies to set policy in global health crises.
“Instead, governments must act to ensure health equity,” she said.
Meanwhile in the US, Bourla said he was concerned that Congress’ failure to approve the Biden administration’s request for $22.5 billion in funding for Covid vaccines and treatments could leave the nation tight.
His warning came as a new wave of the virus is spreading across the US, with more than 100,000 cases being reported daily by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations are also increasing, but the seven-day average of daily deaths has fallen below a tenth of its January 2021 peak.
Bourla said Pfizer would “double” production of its antiviral pill Paxlovid because it believed antivirals would soon become the main tool to fight the pandemic until more durable vaccines were developed that offered year-long protection and could be combined with flu shots.
Pfizer is monitoring monkeypox outbreaks “very closely,” he said. There are “unanswered questions” about how it spread, he added, but his discussions with Pfizer’s scientists suggested that “there isn’t much concern that this could become anything remotely similar.” what we have with that [Covid] Pandemic”.
Bourla downplayed expectations that Pfizer could use profits from sales of Covid vaccines to fund large acquisitions.
“For justification [a large deal] to your stakeholders, you need to lower the cost of bringing the two together,” he noted, adding, “It’s not the time for Pfizer to do something like this.” . . I don’t want to spend the next three years closing down research centers.”