Revamped vaccines that protect against COVID-19 variants are ready to be shipped as soon as they are approved by US health authorities, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said on Israeli television on Sunday, as he visited Israel to receive the prestigious Genesis Prize.
The company’s original vaccine, the first shot to be made available against COVID-19, has been updated to fight the now-dominant Omicron variant and is set to be discussed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Tuesday.
“We have already started manufacturing, and doses have already been produced,” Bourla told Channel 12 news, adding that the vaccines would be ready for shipment and use upon approval.
Bourla won the Genesis Prize for his success leading Pfizer in producing the vaccine. The 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 expressed pride in his Jewish heritage. Landing in the country for the first time in 40 years, he told Channel 12, “I had tears in my eyes.”
Almost two weeks ago, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, alongside the Moderna vaccine, was approved by the FDA for use in children as young as six months old, in a decision not immediately followed by Israel, which has generally remained ahead of the curve in approving shots and boosters.
Israel was among the first countries to begin use of Pfizer’s original vaccine in December 2020 and has repeatedly approved booster shots ahead of other countries.
Bourla backed the FDA’s decision, telling Channel 12 that he “would give [the vaccine] now” to his young child if he were a parent.
Bourla’s visit came on the heels of Pfizer’s announcement Saturday that its latest COVID-19 vaccine to better target the Omicron variant is safe and effective — just days before US regulators were set to debate whether to offer Americans updated booster shots this fall.
Preliminary lab results also show the vaccine was effective against the distinct BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron, although antibody levels weren’t nearly as high.
The subvariants are responsible for the sixth wave of infections in Israel, which has seen daily cases rise to 10,000 a day last week and more than 250 serious cases. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 10,940 people have died in Israel from the virus.
The revised vaccine took seven months to develop, but Bourla told Channel 12 that he believed updating shots for new variants could take three months, or even less, now that the company had the expertise.
The speed at which a vaccine can be rolled out is key, as well as the longevity of its effectiveness, due to the threat of the virus mutating every few months, leading to new infection waves.
Bourla rejected the idea that a new vaccine would be needed for each mutation and said that the company would work to produce vaccines with broader effectiveness.
“Let’s not forget that we had already 14 different variants, and we were able to protect [against] the previous ones very well. That’s the first one that requires a new vaccine,” he told Channel 13, referring to Omicron.
Bourla said the current vaccination practice of being boosted every few months is “not going to work well” going forward, and that he hoped to address that issue with a vaccine that could protect against the virus for at least a year.
“I think one year from a healthcare perspective is the ideal, because it’s easy to remember,” Bourla told the network, adding that the shot can be given alongside other annual immunizations.
Amid the virus wave, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said last Wednesday that the public should not fear new restrictions and that the latest spike of infections was not as serious as previous ones.
Bourla insisted in his interviews that the pandemic was nearing its end and that life could return to pre-pandemic normalcy, though the virus would be present for years to come.
“I think we can reduce dramatically deaths, hospitalizations, sickness, and can do that without implementing any social distancing measures,” Bourla told Kan, hailing advances in vaccines and treatments “that will keep you out of the hospital.”
However, Bourla stopped short of agreeing with the idea that the coronavirus has now mutated into a milder disease like the flu.
“I don’t agree and I don’t think that the health authorities of any country in the world agree with this perspective,” Bourla told the public broadcaster, noting ongoing hospitalizations and deaths.
Addressing the anti-vaccine movement, Bourla told Channel 13 that most were “good people” who were just “afraid” of the vaccine, while “very few” made it their business to spread misinformation in order to “create more fear.”
Weighing in on the attitude of Israel’s two prime ministers during the pandemic, Bourla told Channel 12 that both Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu “cared a lot about COVID” and the potential it had to wreak havoc on the economy, and “did their utmost to resolve it.”
Bourla will be presented with the $1 million Genesis Prize by President Isaac Herzog at a ceremony in Israel to be held on June 29.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.