Pfizer scientists, engineers and technicians were able to develop a vaccine that is 95% effective against the coronavirus. Paul Mensah, a chemical engineer and vice president of the bioprocess research and development group at Pfizer in St. Louis, led the team based in St. Louis and Andover, Massachusetts. It’s responsible for developing and manufacturing the vaccine’s DNA starting material and the messenger RNA drug substance that ultimately becomes the vaccine.
Mensah, who is Black, wants to restore trust and ease the concerns about the vaccine to people in Black and brown communities. He takes pride in knowing that he and his wife have taken it, and that his kids will eventually get it too. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Mensah about vaccine supply, coronavirus mutations and the importance of getting the vaccine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: When you learned the Pfizer vaccine was effective, what was your initial reaction to that?
Paul Mensah: I was just ecstatic and relieved. We’ve had a team of people who have been working nonstop on this product. And when you work on these things, you never know if it’s going to work. And we never expected that it would be 95% effective. . ..You want to work on things that are impactful. But the impact of this one is especially significant, because it’s not just a small patient. The whole world — the whole world — is a patient.
Lewis-Thompson: There has been a lot of distrust from Black people about this vaccine and whether they should get it. How do you hope your involvement in developing the vaccine will help ease those concerns?
The reality is, Black people are more impacted by this than any other group. And so, the only way we get out of this is through vaccination.
Mensah: The history of clinical testing with Black folks in particular, the Tuskegee experiment, I think it’s a good reason why Black people have been skeptical about vaccines and pharmaceutical companies in general. But I think, you know, since that experiment and over time, I think there have been significant improvements in that process. And there’s been lots of work that has been put in place such that those types of experiments will not happen again. What I can say is that, you know, it started with the clinical trials, right. As part of that trial, Pfizer really made a huge effort to try to recruit as many Black people as possible as part of the trial. And I believe at last count, we were almost 10% of Black folks in the clinical trial, which is really important. What I can say is that, you know, at least for me, working at a company like Pfizer, and being a part of the team that really developed this product, I have every confidence in it. Right? I have personally taken it, and I’m doing fine.
The reality is, Black people are more impacted by this than any other group. And so, the only way we get out of this is through vaccination. I was just reading the news that the life expectancy for Black people is down by 2.7% from 2019 to 2020. And a big part of it is because of the COVID-19 disease. And so the only way— the only way — we get out of this is through vaccination.
Lewis-Thompson: What needs to happen in order to make the vaccination process more efficient?
Mensah: As you know, Pfizer in essence distributes the vaccines to the government, and the government is responsible for making sure that it gets to people. So what we have been trying to do on our part is to ensure that we produce as much as possible because we know that the supply has been limited. And so there’s significant effort to try to increase throughput. And in fact, with our CEO and the president at our main site in Kalamazoo, it was announced that we can increase nearly double our productivity and increased throughput by twofold.
So from our end, I think what we can do is continue to improve on the process and get as much vaccine out there as possible. The other thing that came out, which is critical, at least from the supplier end as well, is the fact that right now, we have just recently submitted data that shows that our vaccine can be stored at regular freezer temperature at pharmacies. And so, that should really help in a significant way on the distribution of the vaccines to the government and to pharmacies.
Lewis-Thompson: The Biden administration has asked manufacturers to speed up their process, and you mentioned that Pfizer is doing so. How much more vaccine can the company produce in the coming months? And will that allow us to reach herd immunity by the summer?
Mensah: I believe Pfizer had supplied over 40 million doses of the vaccine to the government. Our hope is that by the end of March, we would have 120 million doses delivered. And by the end of May, we will have 200 million doses delivered. That is really two months ahead of our schedule. And so I think we’ve just signed another deal for another $100 million, and I’m sure that will follow soon after that. And so there’s been significant effort, really. I mean, I think we started off slow, but we’ve made significant improvements, to try to get as much out there as possible. So, you know, I’ve heard the government says, you know, between us and Moderna, I believe there should be about 600 million doses by July. And hopefully if all of that is used, it will lead towards getting us to a stage where this will not be an issue.
You want to work on things that are impactful. But the impact of this one is especially significant, because it’s not just a small patient. The whole world—the whole world—is a patient.
Lewis-Thompson: There have been some mutations already with the coronavirus. How effective is the existing vaccine against coronavirus mutations?
Mensah: Thus far, we have done some in vitro test tube studies with our vaccine against the South African variant and the UK variant. And in both cases, we’ve seen a really strong immune response towards that. And that makes us believe that our vaccine is likely to work against those two variants. Also, real world data from Israel and from the UK seems to indicate that our vaccine is very effective against the UK variant. So we haven’t started formal studies yet. But you know, I think as our CEO and many of our leaders have stated before, we are really working to set the foundation, the groundwork such that if there is any strain of the virus that has mutated, that we will be ready to develop a new vaccine even faster than we did the first one to work against it.
Lewis-Thompson: How do you think you’ll look back on this moment in time, many years down the road?
Mensah: Years from now, many people will still be talking about the pandemic. And to be able to say that in your own little way, in your small part, you helped the world to get to a stage where we overcame this pandemic, I think that is the pinnacle of a career in my mind. That you helped make the world better.