Event Recap: Pfizer’s pandemic breakthrough

Your BLCC, together with other BeLux Chambers in Asia, presented its next High Caliber Speaker event on the 27th of April. This time with Mr. Karel Van De Sompel, Country Manager and Managing Director of Pfizer Belgium & Luxembourg (Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group).

We got to learn how Mr. Van De Sompel and his team got through this unprecedented time pressure and found out which barriers had to be overcome in vaccinating the world. In addition, we got information on what it’s like to play a key role in protecting humankind from a pandemic. Finally, we got a glimpse behind the scenes of how the Pfizer team managed the people, infrastructure, finances, regulatory approvals, cold chain logistics and so much more during one of this pharmaceutical giant’s most intense periods ever.

Daniel Pans, the moderator of this event and President of the Malaysian Chamber, introduced our speaker Karel Van De Sompel.  Mr. Van De Sompel started off by giving the attendees some information on Pfizer as an organization. He emphasized the fact that the journey from research to patient, is a long one and he highlighted the huge importance of their Research & Development department at Pfizer. Their production & distribution departments also play a key role in their success, worldwide they have 43 production sites and 120 distribution centers

When it comes to Belgium, they have been active there for 70 years already. The Pfizer clinical research unit in Brussels is one of the two ‘phase 1’ clinical trials units of Pfizer worldwide. This has been the case since 1992. On a European scale, almost 1 out of 3 of Pfizer’s employees is from Belgium.  

After giving us an introduction about Pfizer as a company, Mr. Van De Sompel shifted further to the insightful topic, vaccinations against COVID-19. The story started in December 2019 – companies worldwide were able to do research on creating a solution. In January 2020, the WHO took a leading role and ensured sharing scientific data with the world. The first focus of Pfizer was not looking for a vaccine, the first focus was finding a treatment. After WHO declared the outbreak as an official pandemic, the first ideas around developing a vaccine were emerging.

Pfizer’s journey was driven by a few key elements. Firstly, the belief that they can contribute as a company. They already had a partnership ongoing with a small company in Germany, called BioNTech. So, there was a belief that by using a completely new technology (MRNA), an approach could be envisioned that was going to bring a solution. After this, assessing the feasibility was very important. They had to keep the right focus by making unlimited investments at a risk. Be agile and start working in parallel tracks.  Less than one year after this, the decision to actually develop a COVID-19 vaccine came. The UK had the first approval, and that was unthinkable of how you can do that in such a short timeframe. Now more than 150 countries have approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.  He goes on talking about his personal journey. Mainly focusing on how he and his family experienced the pandemic and its many different lockdowns. It was a tough journey, and he learned the hard way that you can’t let some aspects of the job touch you personally. Which was particularly challenging as Mr. Van De Sompel was frequently invited to address the press and appear in the media, which squarely put him in the public eye.

We ended this very instructive event with a Q&A. Mr. Van De Sompel was very responsive and gave extremely precise answers. He even mentioned that, in a few weeks, Pfizer & BioNTech will start producing a new vaccine for the Omicron variant. He also concluded that creating the vaccine came with a bit of luck, but it was surely mainly thanks to their strong foundation that they succeeded. Whatever they have built today, they will be able to reuse it in the future, which is excellent news. Pfizer wanted to invest whatever it takes in order to make it happen. They had the scale to do it. Some bad news though: Mr. Van De Sompel doesn’t believe that the company & humanity will be prepared for a totally new pandemic, unless a new pandemic comes around shortly again.

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