Pierre Gaudreault is China Regional President for Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group. He is a well-respected corporate executive and thought leader in the pharmaceutical industry, and a highly experienced professional with more than 25 years of industry experiences in Canada, Europe, China, Japan and the Asia Pacific region.
Pierre spent the majority of his career at Pfizer where he acquired extensive expertise in corporate management and go-to-market models, as well as developed in-depth knowledge about multiple health care systems and archetypes across the globe. Prior to his current role, he was President of the Asia Emerging Markets Region, overseeing the company’s six franchises including Vaccines, Oncology, Rare Disease, Inflammation & Immunology, Internal Medicines, and Hospital.
Pierre holds a Science degree in Molecular Biology from Laval University in Canada. He is married and has four daughters.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, biopharmaceutical companies have encountered unprecedented challenges and seized critical opportunities. In the face of the worst global health crisis in modern history, companies like Pfizer raced to develop a safe and effective vaccine at record speed. The AmCham China Quarterly sat down with Pierre Gaudreault, China Regional President for Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group, to reflect on the past year, Pfizer’s role in responding to the pandemic, and the path ahead for Pfizer in China.
“Science will win” has been the motto frequently repeated by Pfizer over the course of the last 14 months, as the company has grappled with the most devastating global health crisis in modern history. Thankfully – for Pfizer and for the entire world – it is doing just that. Science is winning.
Pfizer, together with its German partner BioNTech, amazed the world this year when it accomplished in the space of nine months what would usually require a decade to achieve. It developed, produced, and commenced distribution of an effective COVID-19 vaccine at a speed previously unimaginable. “Doing anything except this,” says Pierre Gaudreault, “was not an option. Failure was not an option, not with the stakes as high as they are.”
Critical collaboration across companies
During this unprecedented crisis, critical collaborations have been formed to meet the task at hand, often with traditional rivals forging partnerships. The marriage of Pfizer and BioNTech may be the most important union of the century. BioNTech, a small, nimble, German-based immunotherapy company that has spent the last 10 years learning and investing in Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, and Pfizer, a biopharmaceutical giant with huge manufacturing capabilities, decided early on to team up to develop the first mRNA COVID-19 vaccine and to do so at an unparalleled pace.
The partnership paid off. The Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA COVID-19 vaccine was the first vaccine to receive emergency approval by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The team recently increased their global production target for this year to produce more than two billion doses in response to surging global demand. Gaudreault explains that this effort to dramatically increase production capacity has required rapid, rigorous, and continuous improvement of their processes and expansion of their facilities around the world. Thus far, they’ve been able to keep pace with their commitments and remain confident of hitting the two billion target.
Other important partnerships have emerged as well, including Moderna’s partnership with the US National Institutes of Health, BioNTech’s collaboration with Fosun to produce the mRNA vaccine intended for distribution in broader China, and Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) partnership with Merck to increase production capacity of J&J’s recently approved one-dose viral vector vaccine. Gaudreault applauds these partnerships and predicts that there will likely be more and more alliances within the industry in an effort to ensure there are sufficient vaccine doses to meet global needs. He explains that companies around the world are exploring opportunities for productive engagement, noting “this experience has been a huge impetus to accelerate partnerships across the industry – among companies large and small – wherever the potential for breakthroughs exist. With the crisis today, this is a must; no one single company can do it alone.”
Institutional impact of COVID-19
“There is no way we could have developed a vaccine in nine months without doing things differently,” says Gaudreault. “We had never before taken the level of calculated risk that we took in developing this vaccine.”
Pfizer knew early on that unless they completely transformed the way they approached vaccine development, they would not be able to meet the challenge and develop a timely vaccine. Pfizer scientists were instructed to not just think outside the box but to break the metaphorical box entirely and then reconstruct it. Breaking procedural norms, they adopted a strategy wherein the traditional sequential phases of vaccine development would happen in parallel (conducting development, production, and testing simultaneously), a risky proposition that allowed them to speed up their timeline exponentially. Given the success, it’s reasonable to ask whether this pandemic speed development will have a lasting impact on how Pfizer and other biopharmaceutical companies approach vaccine and other development in the future.
For Gaudreault, it’s too early to tell exactly what the lasting impact will be on the industry and the
development process moving forward. While he says it may not necessarily change the modus operandi of the industry forever, he notes that Pfizer has learned a tremendous amount about how they operate their business. “The experience has prompted considerable reflection within Pfizer about other areas where we can work to challenge and push our own mechanisms, be bolder, take more risks where appropriate, and find more flexibility in the service of greater innovation and rapid responsiveness to public health needs. The lessons that emerge from this will be tremendous and bring a lot of flexibility in the future.”
Sticking to the science
Over the last year, since the severity and reach of COVID-19 became apparent, the virus, the public health response to it, and the development of vaccines has been heavily politicized, both in the US and elsewhere. Experts have lamented that actions taken by some top US officials served to undermine science and scientific institutions and resulted in public confusion and distrust.
In the summer and fall of last year, as the US was in the throngs of a heated election season, vaccine development became a common topic of political discourse and, all too often, the discussion was ill-informed and/or inaccurate. The politicization of the vaccine became profoundly concerning for the biopharmaceutical companies working to develop the novel vaccines. The fear was that the tremendous efforts they were undertaking would be all for naught if the public didn’t have access to accurate information, didn’t trust the vaccine, and wasn’t willing to be vaccinated.
In response, CEOs of nine biopharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, released a joint pledge in September 2020 to continue to make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals the top priority in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. They outlined their commitments to adhere to the highest scientific and ethical standards regarding the conduct of clinical trials, the rigor of manufacturing processes, and the use authorization request processes, as well as to produce sufficient and diverse vaccine options suitable for global access. Gaudreault explains that the intent of this joint pledge “was to really step up and tell the world that industry will not be influenced by politics, but, rather, science – and only science – will inform their actions and dictate where the future direction.”
Despite this and other efforts, some groups remain skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines and, for some, including the African-American community in the US, this skepticism is deeply rooted in a devastating history of government abuse. “It’s critical,” Gaudreault says, “that governments and industry work together to address concerns, convey the facts, and reassure the public. Working to understand the concerns and relying on the science and data to address them is the only way forward.” Gaudreault explains that this approach is already showing some results, with the numbers of Americans expressing an intent to be vaccinated growing each month. Importantly, he adds, “it’s possible that our ability to demonstrate the value of this particular vaccine over the next year or two will provide a spectacular example of vaccine efficacy and may help us promote vaccine usage more broadly in the US and across the globe.”
Pfizer in China: priorities, opportunities, and challenges
Pfizer has had a presence in China since 1989. Over the last several decades, the Chinese domestic biopharmaceutical landscape has changed dramatically, as has the economic, legal, and
political environment. Today, China is the world’s second largest drug market and Pfizer’s footprint there has expanded dramatically. China is also one of the largest markets for Pfizer and a top priority for the company.
Innovation is key to Pfizer’s strategy in China. The company has undergone a major transformation in the last few years, transitioning away from being a very diversified company to becoming a smaller, more agile, focused, innovation-driven company. Pfizer sees China as a solid platform for pursuing this strategy, as they work to bring innovative medicines to the country and support their development domestically as well. This strategy, Pfizer asserts, is aligned with the Chinese government’s focus on innovation. “Still,” Gaudreault explains, “innovation is attractive, but it’s also risky. It’s critical that we work with local authorities to create an ecosystem that is welcoming to innovative companies. There are still issues of pricing and reimbursement that need to be addressed, and approval timelines for innovative medicines need to be accelerated. We see tremendous momentum in this regard and are optimistic that the ecosystem will continue to improve to support innovation, but there are still some concerns in this area.”
Another critical component of Pfizer’s strategy in China is forging strategic partnerships with Chinese companies, and there is no dearth of opportunity in this regard. Pfizer has recently entered into several important collaborations, including a partnership with the Chinese company Cansino, for the promotion of their meningitis vaccine. Late last year, Pfizer signed a partnership with CStone for the development and promotion of their anti-PD-L1 monoclonal antibody (for use in oncology), and recently committed to a future strategic partnership with LianBio. Gaudreault explains that “the time is ripe for engagement as China evolves more and more into innovation and as you see the rise of spectacular Chinese startups and biotech companies. American and Western biopharmaceutical companies can bring expertise and experience to complement and help expand the work of these young companies. To find the middle ground, where we can share and build on each other’s expertise, is really spectacular.” For Pfizer, while they see their involvement as important for bringing new products to China, they also see their role as helping local companies elevate and promote their own products within China and across the world.
As part of its China strategy, Pfizer has committed to increasing drug access for the rising middle-class population in China, a goal that, Gaudreault admits, is a difficult undertaking. Gaudreault explains that this goal is related to one of Pfizer’s core purposes, namely “bringing breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, and this means not just the lives of rich patients but all patients. This purpose is linked to one of our four core values, which is equity.” Pfizer says that working on strategies for providing innovative medicines to different categories of payers in China is key to this work. The company notes important progress on the part of Chinese authorities in pushing forward a plan for broader commercial health insurance plans and explains they are trying to find schemes within their own franchise that allow them to have different access models depending on the categories of product and patient. Gaudreault says, “Pfizer’s goal is for everything we launch in the future to come with an affordability plan. What that means for different sectors of the population will be different, but that’s always part of our thought process related to China. The lack of equity is very difficult to fix, to be frank, but it’s always on the top of our mind as a company.”
Paving a successful path in China
Gaudreault has worked in the industry for over 25 years, in North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region, including multiple postings in China. He explains that humility is key to his approach in China. “As a person and as a leader, it’s critical to see your place as a guest and to try to be aware of what you don’t understand,” he says, adding that “Multinational companies in China need to take the time to understand the realities of the Chinese market and of the Chinese people, understand what drives them, and respect their unique situation and needs.” According to Gaudreault, the assumptions any leader brings into a new context like this rarely hold up. He believes there are tremendous nuances and that it’s important that companies and leaders recognize this and are comfortable with it.
“Equally important,” says Gaudreault, “is flexibility. China, especially in our industry, is incredibly dynamic and moving very quickly – more rapidly than any other market I’ve seen, and we need to be comfortable with change. We need to be adaptable and to course correct as we go because it’s never going to be the case that you can simply develop a plan and stick to it.”
The final must-have characteristic to succeed as a leader in China, according to Gaudreault, is creativity. He links the need for creativity to the fact that China is changing so rapidly, but also to the fact that the system and culture in China are so unique. “It’s critical,” he explains, “to ensure that business practices are absolutely compliant, while at the same time finding creative ways to use the technology and machinery that is unique to China to help evolve your own business and innovation.”
This article appears in Issue 4 of the AmCham China Quarterly Magazine, which you can read after logging in to the Member Portal. Click on the Publications tab to access the full version of the magazine.