New Pfizer vaccines could be stored in standard freezer: CEO
The vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech is now a mainstay in Europe's attempts to combat the pandemic, but shipping and protecting it is a challenge.
The current version must be held at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), restricting its delivery to specially fitted vaccination centers.
However, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told AFP in an interview that a new formulation is in the works and that he is confident the vaccine will be successful against new virus variants.
According to Bourla, Pfizer has a lot of real-world data from some of the variant outbreaks.
"We have already data for the UK one -- I hate using the countries, but people know them like that -- which is very prominent in Israel... efficiency was 97 percent," he said.
"We have data from South Africa, with the South African variant, and overall the efficacy was 100 percent. And also have data from Brazil. And it looks also this is very well controlled."
Pfizer has not yet gathered enough data on the efficacy of its vaccine against the so-called Indian strain, the latest to raise fears that a new wave of infections could undermine the immunization campaign.
He was "optimistic" that the vaccine would be successful, and that the firm's mRNA technology could be adapted to combat new strains.
"The thing that makes me feel more comfortable is that we have developed a process that once a variant becomes a variant of concern, we should be able to have a new vaccine within 100 days," he said.
"It's a tough target, but I am very comfortable that we should be able to do it.
"And because of the effectiveness of this mRNA technology, I believe that variants will not become an issue, we'll be able to control them."
The European Union is betting big on Pfizer's relatively expensive vaccine, although there are fears that the challenge of keeping it at extremely cold temperatures could make distribution challenging in poorer countries.
But, once again, Bourla exuded confidence.
"We are doing actually two things on this front," he said.
The US Food and Drug Administration requires the vaccine to be stored in a regular freezer at minus 20 degrees Celsius for two weeks, which Bourla believes could be extended.
"And we are about to generate the data for another two weeks. So that this formulation can be stored, let's say, a month in minus 20 if we get approval for that," he said.
"On the other hand, we are also working with a new formulation which is much improved, that will be ready to use: that means you don't need to dilute the vaccine, it will come diluted."
According to Bourla, Pfizer hopes the vaccine can be kept for two to three months in regular refrigeration and another three months in a freezer.
"So a total of four-to-six months outside the minus 50 or 70... we believe we'll be able to have it if we are successful in summer."
Higher price justified
According to leaked pricing information, the Pfizer vaccine is several times more costly than, say, AstraZeneca's rival medicine, which has failed to fulfill distribution promises.
However, according to Bourla, the higher price is justified.
"Our strategy is to try with a pricing (that is) able to provide equitable access to all," he said. Equitable means that more vaccine doses are made available to countries that need it more.
"So we have one tier of pricing, which covers all the high-income countries, Europe is included in that, the US is included in that, Japan, Canada, all the high-income countries," Bourla said.
"I don't want to go to what is the price for each one country, but at the largest, it is the cost of a meal. So I would say for the value that the vaccine brings, we price that very, very reasonably," he said.
According to the CEO, the price is about half of what we have in high-income countries for countries classified as middle-income by the World Bank.
"And for the low-income countries, we have decided to give it on a non-profit basis, of course. So I think this is our strategy, this is our policy. So eventually, this vaccine will reach all the people of the world."