How Pfizer Delivered the COVID-19 Vaccine in Record Time

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Michael Ku, VP of global clinical supply at Pfizer, shares insights for the c-suite as well as reveals behind-the-scenes insight into Pfizer’s ability to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine swiftly.

In this Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A, Michael Ku, VP of global clinical supply at Pfizer, explains the secret behind Pfizer’s ability to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine to the world in record time.


HBSHAA: What advice would you recommend to leaders and/or the c-suites as they strive for their bold moves in 2023?

Ku (Pfizer): To deliver on bold moves, you need to have an organization that has a purpose-driven culture with a focus on innovation and to also establish a digital strategy.1

When I began leading our global clinical supply team more than ten years ago, we had a patient-first culture and established our digital clinical supply chain strategy in 2014, which served us well during the pandemic.

Additionally, we partnered with Harvard Business School professor, Linda Hill, to deploy her culture/innovation tools to learn where areas of opportunity existed in our organization, one of which was ensuring decisions were made with agility at the appropriate level of the organization.

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HBSHAA: Can you elaborate on the Harvard Business School case that describes how digital technologies were leveraged in the recent COVID-19 journey?

Ku (Pfizer):We knew that we would have to leverage innovative ways of working to be able to deliver a vaccine and antiviral medication with velocity and that digital technologies would play a major role in this effort. As we looked for ways to remove the whitespace from our processes, we quickly realized the value that digital dashboards and analytics brought to this effort.2 Most notably, digital technologies allowed us to learn from hindsight, insight, and foresight by enabling data informed decision-making. Throughout our digital transformation journey, which began in 2014, we developed an awareness that we were creating not only best practices, but next practices.


HBSHAA: What key aspects of Pfizer’s journey allowed the company to produce the COVID-19 vaccine so quickly? Can you elaborate further on any key aspects of this journey that made the “impossible possible”?

Ku (Pfizer): In addition to a purpose-driven culture with an emphasis on innovation and a digital strategy, it was critical that we at Pfizer had the right mindset to help our global clinical supply chain team be successful. These five mindsets helped us to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine and antiviral medication, PAXLOVID.

Those five mindsets3 can be summarized as follows:

  • Caring: “Compassion in action.” When the pandemic hit, our first concern was the health, safety, and wellness of our colleagues. Caring also represented our global clinical supply chain team’s efforts to deliver the right product, with the right dose, at the right time, at the right temperature, and at the right location for our patients around the globe.
  • Curiosity: “Exploration in action.” This was demonstrated by our collaboration with the various stakeholders in our global clinical supply chain ecosystem. For example, we had our own digital dashboards, which served as our mission control to keep track of our progress and take out the white space to streamline our processes while exploring new ways to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Collaboration: “Connection in action.” Here, we leveraged new technologies to simulate the complexity of a global clinical supply chain and had cross-functional clinical supply chain teams train and cross-train together, building trust in each other’s capabilities. Our “Walking the Vial” initiative allowed us to pay attention to every step with their exact details in the supply chain and remove white space in the process to deliver on the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Creativity: “Innovation in action.” This was represented through our use of digital dashboards that provided hindsight, insight, and foresight to address real-time challenges, including hurricanes and wildfires that could impact supply chain continuity. This 24/7 digital tool enabled us to help keep track of the location of each and every vaccine vial.
  • Courage: “Conviction in action.” This represented Pfizer’s purpose-driven colleagues’ commitment to going all-in to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine and an antiviral medication in record time at the speed of science with quality.


References

  1. Tennessee on Supply Chain Management Podcast, “Delivering Hope for the Supply Chain Marathon with Pfizer VP, Dr. Michael Ku,” Episode 13, https://www.gscipodcast.com/1844640/11320169 (Sept. 15, 2022).
  2. Hill, Linda and Tedards, Emily, “Michael Ku and Global Clinical Supply at Pfizer Inc.: Bringing Hope to Patients (C),”Harvard Business School Supplement–Faculty and Research, https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=61429 (revised January 2022).
  3. Pfizer, “Delivering Hope: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Supply Chain Journey,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gU4efmo0Ag8 (Aug 6, 2021).


About the contributors

Dr. Michael Ku is the VP of global clinical supply at Pfizer. Prior to this role, Ku was VP of clinical pharmacy research services at Genzyme. Ku received his doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Services University as well as a master's degree in business administration from Anna Maria College.He also holds a bachelor of science degree in toxicology from the University of Toronto and is a graduate of the general management program from Harvard Business School.

Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.