Pfizer’s brand-new Covid-19 vaccine, which has 90 percent effectiveness, has proven to be the biggest, most optimistic news by far in a year of mostly jaw-droppingly awful news. The much-anticipated discovery brought to the limelight the name of the pharmaceutical company’s Chairman and CEO, Albert Bourla.
Dr. Bourla is a Thessaloniki native who left Greece at the age of 34 to pursue a career in the pharmaceuticals industry. Born in the northern Greece city on October 21, 1961, he is part of the long history of the Sephardic Jews of Thessaloniki.
The Bourla family arrived in Thessaloniki from Spain about six centuries ago. As jewelers, they created and sold diamonds, jewelry and watches throughout the Balkans, and built two important buildings in the city, one of which is the Moroccan Mansion. Albert Bourla is a descendant of the few survivors of the Jewish community of the city which was almost completely wiped out by the Nazis during World War II.
After graduating from high school Bourla went on to study at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He graduated with a PhD in veterinary medicine and worked as a veterinarian for a time. He joined Pfizer in 1993, first serving as a doctor of veterinary medicine and technical director for the company’s animal health division in Greece.
At the age of 34 he left Thessaloniki with his wife to join Pfizer Europe and work in several positions, coming to live in four different countries. He served as Pfizer’s Animal Health division president for Europe, Africa and Middle East during 2005–2009, followed by the Europe, Africa, and Asia Pacific division during 2009–2010. He also worked as Group President of Pfizer’s Global Vaccines, Oncology and Consumer Healthcare business.
After working for Pfizer for 25 years, he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer (COO) on January 1st 2018, and on January 1st 2019 he became Pfizer’s Chief Executive Officer.
In addition to serving on the boards of Pfizer and the Pfizer Foundation, Bourla has served on the boards of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Catalyst, the Partnership for New York City, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. He is also a member of The Business Council and the Business Roundtable.
In April of 2019, Bourla was presented with the award for the most “Preeminent Greek Leader” of the global pharmaceutical industry by United States Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey R. Pyatt, at the Prix Galien Greece Awards ceremony.
In the Spring of 2020, Bourla began to devote all his efforts to Pfizer’s development of a possible vaccine against Covid-19. By late July of 2020, the company was among top developers of a potential vaccine, in partnership with the German firm BioNTech. In November, the Pfizer vaccine was proven to be 90 percent effective against the coronavirus.
Despite spending most of his time in board meetings and traveling, Bourla has never forgotten his hometown and his summer home in Halkidiki, which he bought in 2009. He also cares a great deal about all the important developments in his native country and he follows Greek news closely.
He says that despite living in New York City, everything about him is still Greek. And he tries to pass that love of country and heritage on to his children, who only know Greece from spending their summer vacations there.
In his native Thessaloniki, which Bourla calls the “epicenter of his life,” he is still known as “Akis” to his family, his many friends, and fellow university professors and alumni. His sister and her children, as well as his in-laws, still live in Thessaloniki and he maintains strong family ties with them.
Every summer Bourla returns to Thessaloniki and he joins his friends in Chalkidiki at every opportunity.
When the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki awarded the great scientist for his contributions to medicine, Professor of Medicine Dimitris Kouvelas said that the award does not go to “Dr. Albert Bourla” but to “Akis”: “I praise our own Akis, our peer, our compatriot, the Salonika dude, the child that used to play like all downtown children at Navarinou Square.”
Bourla has said that he believes that there is great talent in his field in Greece and he has invested his own talents and time into the establishment of a digital hub for Pfizer in Thessaloniki, which will begin operating soon with a staff of approximately 200.
The center will be one of just six such facilities that Pfizer will establish all over the world.
The digital research hub will focus on artificial intelligence and data analysis, helping to develop technology that can be incorporated into Pfizer’s development pipeline of medicines and vaccines.
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