Why Pfizer’s Covid Vaccine Could Fail, And How Corporate Leaders Can Make Sure It Doesn’t

If we really to turn the corner on Covid, we've got to get people to take a vaccine. That's going to take leadership.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

News from Pfizer on the potential 90% effectiveness of their Covid vaccine electrified markets Monday and gave the drug company a justifiable 9% bounce in their share price.

“I think we can see light at the end of the tunnel,” CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Monday morning. “I believe this is likely the most significant medical advance in the last 100 years, if you count the impact this will have in public health, global economy.”

It’s hardly hyperbolae. The world has been waiting months for exactly this kind of news.  CEOs we’ve been polling throughout the year have been expecting it—all but baking a vaccine into their optimistic projections about the economy in 2021.

As CNBC points out, scientists were hoping for a coronavirus vaccine that was 75% effective. White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has said one that is 50% or 60% effective would be acceptable. Ninety percent? That’s a grand slam while down by 3 runs. In the 9th. In the 7th game of the World Series. Against the ’27 Yankees.

But while there’s plenty to applaud here—not the least of which is the potential dawn of a whole new way of creating vaccines for whatever mother nature throws at us down the road—there remains a potentially huge stumbling block to the effective rollout of Pfizer’s treatment (as well as others, including Johnson & Johnson’s).

I’m not talking about the logistics of what the White House has named “Operation Warp Speed” — the government-managed-and-funded program to get the vaccine to as many as 300 million people throughout the course of 2021-22 (though, as anyone who watched 60 Minutes on Sunday night learned, the full rollout may take a lot longer than anyone would like, even if we absolutely nail it).

No, I’m referring to something a lot more worrisome to our efforts to beat Covid, something that we brought up here some time ago: What appears to be a deep reluctance, bordering on antipathy, among tens of millions of Americans to taking a Covid vaccine at all.

According to data from Morning Consult, a Washington-DC based market research outfit, the number of Americans that say they are likely to take a Covid-19 vaccine has fallen sharply over the past few months. In September, fewer than 50% of those polled said they would be willing to take a vaccine, versus 70% in April. According to Morning Consult, just 31% of Black adults say they would be willing to take a vaccine.

It’s certainly the greatest fear of General Gus Perna, the four-star in charge of Warp Speed. Asked what his worst nightmare was by 60 Minutes, he was pretty blunt: “We get vaccines to the American people and they don’t take them,” he said. “Shame on us. ‘Hey, I was already sick, I don’t need it.’ Shame on us. ‘Hey, I don’t believe in vaccines.’ Shame on us… Just shame on us and it does keep me up at night.”

At a Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute summit in September, hosted by longtime Chief Executive columnist Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Pfizer’s Bourla said his company would do all it could to insure the safety and efficacy of the vaccine they are developing. But as for getting people to take it, that’s a much bigger job, one CEOs must step up and help with.

“I think businesses need to step up and also add their voice because people right now are confused,” said Bourla. “They don’t know what to believe and who to believe. The decision to vaccinate or not is not affecting only your health, which, at the end of the day is your decision, but it affects the health of others. Because if you don’t vaccinate, you’re becoming the weak link.”

So, as Pfizer and the government move into what we all hope to be the homestretch on the most important scientific break we’ve had during Covid, it’s time for business leaders to step up and do their part. Now is the time to start educating your workers on the reality and safety of the vaccine. It may seem like overreach to get involved in a public health education effort like this, but these are extraordinary times.

Masks and distance and hope will only take us so far, for so long. If we really want to turn the corner on Covid, it’s going to take more than medicine—it’s going to take leadership, too.