I love stories like this. Simply love them. It is a story of Holocaust survival against heavy odds. It is a story filled with irony, coincidence and, yes, plain luck. It is a story about Albert Bourla, an immigrant Jew who, as CEO of Pfizer Corporation, spearheaded the development of the first COVID vaccination, which, as you know, has already saved untold thousands of lives. That, however, is not the best part of the story. The “kicker” is that but for the abovementioned irony, coincidence and luck Albert would never have been born. No Albert, maybe no COVID vaccine, or certainly not as quickly. No Albert and untold thousands more people would have died from COVID.
The story began in Greece in 1939. Albert’s future parents lived in Thessalonika, Greece, which was a thriving port city on the Aegean Sea. In 1939 some 60,000 Jews lived in the city in peace and harmony with the non-Jewish population. On September 1, 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland, which marked the beginning of WWII. That, by itself, had no immediate effect on Thessalonika. However, in the Spring of 1941 Hitler decided he would invade Russia. But, first he wanted to secure his southern flank. That decision doomed Greece. Germany invaded Greece on April 6, 1941. The port of Thessalonika was a prime target.
The Jews in the city were doomed. Almost the entire population was quickly sent to concentration camps and exterminated. There were very few survivors.
Two of the lucky few were Albert’s future parents. According to Wikipedia his future mother was literally minutes away from being executed by a firing squad when her life was spared. Her brother-in-law, who was not Jewish, managed this 11th hour rescue by paying a hefty ransom to a Nazi Party official who then interceded on her behalf. His future father survived due to the good fortune of being absent from the ghetto when the Nazis arrived to round up the residents. He went into hiding and survived the war.
After the war the two met and married. On October 21, 1961 they had a son, Abraham. By all accounts Abraham was a brilliant student. He studied veterinary medicine, earning a doctorate in reproductive biotechnology in veterinary medicine at Aristotle University in Salonika.
He joined Pfizer in 1993 as technical director for the firm’s animal health division. In 2001 he emigrated to the US and changed his name to Albert. Albert rose through the ranks at Pfizer and became CEO on January 1, 2019. He became executive chairman in January 2020. In 2020 Institutional Investor designated him as the US’s top CEO in the pharmaceutical industry.
With the advent of the COVID pandemic Albert directed Pfizer to aggressively develop a safe and effective vaccine. To that end, he partnered with BioNTech, a German company. He directed that “financial returns should not drive any decisions.” Virtually all medical and epidemiological people thought it would take years to develop a safe and effective vaccine . Indeed, historically, that had been the standard timeframe. But, by working in cooperation with executives of other major pharmaceutical companies and with the strong support of President Trump it was accomplished in a matter of months by November 2020. The Pfizer vaccine was ready first. In order to expedite matters Albert had taken the calculated risk of mass-producing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine prior to FDA approval so that it would be ready for distribution immediately upon approval. Undoubtedly, this decision saved thousands of lives.
Albert is a major figure in the pharmaceutical industry. For example, he is a member of The Business Council, which is an organization of prominent business leaders, and the Business Roundtable a group of business leaders that promotes pro-business public policy. In addition, he is featured regularly on CNBC and in the NY Times.
The supreme irony of this story is that Albert who, but for a fortuitous twist of fate would have never been born, has had a significant role in the development of a vaccine against a deadly pandemic that is benefiting millions of people worldwide, including the descendants of those who sought to eradicate his ancestors.