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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla awarded $1 million Genesis Prize for 2022

Foundation cites Jewish executive’s leadership, willingness to take risks in order to produce vaccine as quickly as possible; will donate money to Holocaust education

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a ceremony in Thessaloniki, Greece, on Oct. 12, 2021. (Giannis Papanikos/AP)
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a ceremony in Thessaloniki, Greece, on Oct. 12, 2021. (Giannis Papanikos/AP)

The Genesis Foundation announced Wednesday that the winner of its annual prize for 2022 is Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, which produced a COVID-19 vaccine that has been used by Israel and other countries around the world to inoculate their populations against the coronavirus.

The Genesis Prize honors individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement and commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.

Bourla received the highest number of votes in a recent global vote in which more than 200,000 people from 71 countries participated. His nomination as prize laureate was then unanimously approved by the Genesis Foundation selection committee, the foundation said in a statement.

The committee commended Bourla “for his leadership, determination, and especially for his willingness to assume great risks.”

“Unlike CEOs of most other major companies working on developing COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Bourla declined billions of dollars in US federal subsidies in order to avoid government bureaucracy and expedite development and production of the vaccine,” the statement said. “As a result, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was ready in record time: months instead of years.”

The foundation also noted “Dr. Bourla’s pride in his Jewish identity and heritage, his commitment to Jewish values and his support for the State of Israel.”

President Isaac Herzog will present Bourla with the $1 million prize at a ceremony in Israel to be held on June 29.

An Israeli health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a child at the Clalit Health Services in the central Israeli city of Modiin on January 2, 2022. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Winners customarily donate the prize to a philanthropic cause and Bourla has asked that the money go toward preserving the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, “with a particular emphasis on the tragedy suffered by the Greek Jewish community,” the statement said.

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Bourla grew up as the child of Holocaust survivors.

“I did not set out to live a public life, and I never could have imagined that I might one day receive the profound honor of the Genesis Prize and stand alongside my extraordinary fellow nominees,” Bourla was quoted as saying in the statement. “I accept it humbly and on behalf of all my Pfizer colleagues who answered the urgent call of history these past two years and together bent the arc of our common destiny.”

“I was brought up in a Jewish family who believed that each of us is only as strong as the bonds of our community; and that we are all called upon by God to repair the world,” Bourla said, referring to a central tenet in Judaism of perfecting the world. “I look forward to being in Jerusalem to accept this honor in person, which symbolizes the triumph of science and a great hope for our future.”

The prize is usually awarded in Jerusalem each June at a dinner attended by the prime minister. But the ceremony has been called off the past two years due to the pandemic.

Genesis Foundation CEO Stan Polovets praised Bourla, saying he “personifies two of the most fundamental Jewish values: the commitment to the sanctity of life and to repairing the world.”

“Millions of people are alive and healthy because of what Dr. Bourla and his team at Pfizer have accomplished,” Polovets said, adding that it was a “proud moment not just for the winner but for the entire Jewish community.

“A people so small in number are having such an outsized impact on this global effort to save lives,” Polovets said.

Other candidates on a short list to win the prize, often referred to as the “Jewish Noble,” were actor, producer, director and activist Sacha Baron Cohen; fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg; philosopher and author Yuval Noah Harari; actress and activist Scarlett Johansson; and human rights activist and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld.

Previous winners of the Genesis Prize include artist Anish Kapoor, violinist Itzhak Perlman, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor-director Michael Douglas. In 2018, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received a lifetime achievement award from the foundation.

Michael Bloomberg, right, receives the Genesis Prize from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Genesis Prize Chairman Stan Polovets looks on, May 22, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

In 2018, actress Natalie Portman snubbed the prize ceremony because she did not want to appear to be endorsing then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The prize was inaugurated in 2014 and is run in a partnership between the private Genesis Prize Foundation and the chairman’s office of the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit group that has close ties to the Israeli government. It is funded by a $100 million endowment established by the foundation.

Pfizer had opted out of the US government’s Operation Warp Speed program to develop a COVID vaccine and turned down billions of dollars subsidies it could have received. According to the Genesis Foundation, the decision made it possible to avoid government bureaucracy and expedite development and production of the vaccine

When the vaccine was finally ready, Israel was among the first countries to receive the shots, enabling it to set off on a trailblazing campaign of mass vaccination. As of Wednesday, over 6 million of Israel’s 9.5 million population have had both doses of the vaccine, including 4.3 million who have also had a third booster.

Last year Bourla was honored at Israel’s official Independence Day ceremony. The Technion Institue of Technology in Haifa has also awarded Bourla an honorary doctorate “for his extraordinary achievement in leading the record time development” of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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