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‘A question of choices.’ Pfizer vaccine leader on confronting new coronavirus variants

Philip Dormitzer led Pfizer’s successful coronavirus vaccine research effort, which yielded a vaccine with a stunning 95% efficacy in interim results from a clinical trial last year. That vaccine, developed with the German firm BioNTech, relies on a new technology employing messenger RNA (mRNA). It was the first to win emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for use against COVID-19 in the United States.

However, recent lab studies and new clinical trial results have suggested recently emerged variants of SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic coronavirus, have evolved resistance to vaccines, including Pfizer’s. The company’s vaccine, which requires two doses 3 weeks apart, is now being administered in more than 50 countries, including the United States. Pfizer says it is on track to supply 200 million doses to the United States by the end of May and aims to ship 2 billion doses globally this year.

Dormitzer, who has an M.D. and Ph.D. from Stanford University, has a history with pandemics. He was U.S. research chief at Novartis Vaccines, where he steered that company’s work creating—in what is still record time—a successful vaccine against the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu. He has been at Pfizer since 2015.

Dormitzer spoke with ScienceInsider about how the company is responding to the new variants and what challenges it foresees as SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve in unpredictable ways. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: The pandemic is moving into a new phase as vaccination campaigns gear up while viral variants, or strains, proliferate. What keeps you up at night?

A: Things were supposed to get much, much calmer after we had the vaccine authorized. But things just don’t hold still. The virus throws out new variants and we need to evaluate those and be prepared to respond. And there are many other things: … How will the vaccine work in special populations? What reactions are people having? How do we improve things like temperature stability? The vaccine’s authorized. It’s wonderful to see it being used. But it’s not the end of the process.

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