The smartest CEO in America today is a Greek veterinarian named Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer (NYSE:PFE).
Bourla has made Pfizer stock a hot ticket. The stock is up 38% so far in 2021, generating $100 billion in new market capitalization. He has done this with a drug Pfizer didn’t develop, the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine from BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX).
Along the way Bourla has outmaneuvered Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) and Merck (NYSE:MRK). He has raised Pfizer’s public profile. He has made Pfizer the industry’s unquestioned leader again.
If anyone is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic fading, it’s Albert Bourla.
Bourla’s Insight and PFE Stock Gains
Investor have traditionally looked at a name like PFE stock as four businesses. They discover compounds. They create markets for them. They produce compounds and they distribute them.
The industry trend over the last decade has been to de-emphasize production and distribution in favor of discovery and market creation . Pfizer has been part of that trend, combining its consumer business with Mylan in 2019 to create privately-owned UpJohn.
Pfizer has a huge pipeline of drugs but it had no blockbusters when COVID-19 hit. Bourla saw opportunity with BionTech, a German company. It had a vaccine candidate but lacked the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing heft to get it to market. Bourla committed Pfizer to getting the vaccine to market quickly, and in giant quantities.
While a lot of analysts and reporters saw Moderna as the COVID-19 vaccine play, because it could build manufacturing off its discovery business, Bourla recognized the political challenge of what lay ahead.
Pfizer’s dosage made it a safe vaccine, which sped approvals. Pfizer’s formulation was the first to get an Emergency Use Authorization, and the first to win full approval. The dosage decision also meant boosters might prove necessary, and that has proven to be the case. I got my third Pfizer shot in September, and everyone calls it the Pfizer shot. Bourla’s decisions made Pfizer, founded by German immigrants to Brooklyn in 1849, part of the vocabulary again.
In addition to the vaccine, Pfizer began work to bring an antiviral to market. Its Paxlovid, however, was only the second to succeed in a clinical trial. Merck also has an antiviral and, as many wrote (again including me) it has been gearing up for a big, highly profitable market.
This is where Bourla made a second brilliant move. He signed a royalty-free license on Paxlovid with the Medicines Patent Pool, a non-profit. This will let the drug be sold cheaply in 95 countries. It doesn’t limit Pfizer’s western markets, it doesn’t surrender patent rights, but it puts a public relations halo around Pfizer.
Bourla knows how to use a halo. He has become the face of the industry against misinformation. He has branded anti-vaxxers as “criminals.” He has stood strong against charges that he was arrested for fraud (he wasn’t) and that his wife died from the vaccine (she’s fine).
While many anti-vaxxers distrust Dr. Anthony Fauci, who remains chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, they trust Trump FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb. Gottlieb has remained a powerful voice and now says the pandemic could be over in January. Gottlieb is a Pfizer board member.
The Bottom Line
The pharmacy business isn’t just about science. It isn’t just about manufacturing, marketing and distribution.
It’s also about politics. There’s politics within the industry, and there’s always political tension with government. Politics isn’t a dirty word. It’s how you get agreement to get big things done.
Albert Bourla has mastered the politics of COVID-19. Less than three years after becoming CEO of Pfizer, he has made it the third-leading drug company by market cap and with a bullet.
I never thought I would write this but buy Pfizer.
On the date of publication, Dana Blankenhorn held a long position in MRNA. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.
Dana Blankenhorn has been a financial and technology journalist since 1978. Just in time for the holidays he has a collection of COVID-19 stories at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at email@example.com or tweet him at @danablankenhorn. He writes a Substack newsletter, Facing the Future, which covers technology, markets, and politics.