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Pfizer chief, visiting Boston, sees ‘scientific renaissance’ over coming decade

But he worries government pricing curbs could skew drug discovery

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla predicted a "scientific renaissanace" while speaking at the Boston College Chief Executives Club.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Rapid advances in biology and technology will combine with the growing health needs of an aging population to fuel a “scientific renaissance” over the coming decade, the chief executive at drug giant Pfizer told Boston business and civic leaders Tuesday.

“Those two [trends], when they come together, will produce solutions that were impossible to find before,” helping to treat long-intractable diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer, Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said at a downtown luncheon hosted by Boston College’s Chief Executives Club.

Bourla, a native of Greece, told the crowd of about 150 people that he was broadly hopeful about therapeutic breakthroughs and the potential for artificial intelligence to accelerate every biopharma process from drug discovery to identifying patients to enroll in clinical trials.

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“Overall, I’m very optimistic because no one follows a pessimist, no one,” Bourla said in a genial conversation moderated by Karen S. Lynch, the president and chief executive of CVS Health.

But he also warned that excessive government interventions to regulate drug pricing or limit patent protection — letting cheaper generics onto the market sooner — could handcuff drug makers, drive away investors, and dampen innovation.

In a short interview after his appearance, the Pfizer chief said he was especially concerned that a new law aimed at bringing down drug costs could skew industry incentives.

In addition to a provision empowering Medicare to negotiate prices of some of the most expensive medications, Bourla warned that another provision of the law might reduce investments in traditional medicines such as pills because of a price-setting mechanism that kicks in after nine years compared with 13 years for biologics.

“It creates a disincentive,” he said, adding, “I’m not very optimistic, in this situation of divided [US] government, of finding a solution.”

For now, Bourla said, Pfizer — the largest global pharmaceutical company based on 2022 revenue — is plowing COVID-era profits from its messenger RNA vaccine and Paxlovid antiviral pill into new drug development in its own labs and through acquisitions.

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In its biggest deal this year, the New York-based company paid $43 billion in March for Seagen, a Bothell, Wash., biotech developing cancer drugs. Closer to home, Pfizer has forged separate drug development partnerships with company creation firm Flagship Pioneering of Cambridge and the Boston biotech Ginkgo Bioworks.

As the scientific understanding of mutations and disease-fighting approaches proliferates, the old model of keeping drug discovery within one company “is not sustainable,” Bourla told his audience at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Companies will need to form partnerships with research institutions and other biopharmaceutical firms. “What you have to do is enable an ecosystem,” he said.

Citing the industry’s success in rapidly deploying effective vaccines and medicines to treat the COVID virus, Bourla said, history will remember the scientists and companies that helped to subdue the global pandemic more than the national governments and international health agencies that set the ground rules.

“The power of science, in the hands of the private sector, will save the world,” he said.


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com.