Prevention Is Always Better Than the Cure – Professor Rafał Mrówka, Director of the MBA Program Office, Warsaw School of Economics, talks to Ph.D. Dorota Hryniewiecka-Firlej, President of the Board of Pfizer Polska

Prevention Is Always Better Than the Cure – Professor Rafał Mrówka, Director of the MBA Program Office, Warsaw School of Economics, talks to Ph.D. Dorota Hryniewiecka-Firlej, President of the Board of Pfizer Polska

It’s been six months since Pfizer has been the talk of the world. What is the reality of an organization that determines the fate of an entire population?

I don’t think we’re deciding the fate of an entire population, but we’re certainly trying to help an entire population to combat a pandemic. We are a very different company now, because of the pandemic, and all of these difficult experiences reinforced our pre-pandemic philosophy, when we believed that the culture of the company should be built like a democracy based on a community of values rather than a community of interests.  It was a collective decision of the entire board. The pandemic started to verify us in a positive way and the course of external events – political emotions, polarization, increasing brutalization in public communication – showed that the way to survive is to appeal to values.

Another thing that is characteristic of us today is that despite all the virtualization of the world and the digital transformation, we are trying to maintain a very good contact with each other and even better to build a strong bond based on empathy.  But in the beginning everything was difficult because it was happening day by day and everything was new and everything was a huge surprise. It was also difficult to cope with the sudden silence – I stopped going to the office, there was no possibility of direct contact with business partners. What was left was the internet at home and trying to run the organization effectively, based on the tools available, because after all, nothing could shake out. Especially in a company that started to provide an anti-COVID vaccine – the first in the world.

The pandemic caused us to start improving internal processes and their efficiency. The project to develop and distribute the mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 is the largest and most difficult project I have had the opportunity to participate in. Despite many difficulties, we had to make every member of the team responsible for delivering the vaccine to Poland work more efficiently than usual. It was all under one umbrella – a commitment to quality in everything we deliver – service, communication or product – because at the end of the line is the patient, the recipient of life-saving prophylaxis.

 We made it clear to each other that let’s work on the quality of everything we do, because it may be the first to suffer from virtual collaboration. Over 500 people in the organization had to be persuaded that the quality of the service, the response, the email, the design, shows respect both for everyone in the organization and for the patient, because all of these processes are delivering life-saving medicine to the patient. We have walked this path. Our competencies deepened tremendously during the pandemic. I have also found that the most important leadership trait during this difficult time is empathy. It has also benefited my family relationships – I am better able to listen, empathize, and experience emotions. 

Bringing a new vaccine to the market is demanding. What steps did the process consist of, how did it proceed, and what investment did it require?

It is important that we separate two issues. There were a lot of accusations at the beginning of this process that we were trying to experiment on populations, and I would like to debunk for the thousandth time that that is not the case. We are talking about an mRNA mechanism that has been known for over 15 years. Many scientists all over the world are working on this mechanism, including Professor Jacek Jemielity, a Polish scientist who has his share in the success of mRNA. This is not an experiment, but a breakthrough in thinking and absolute proof of the genius of human thought. I am delighted with the safety of this mechanism and I think this is a huge opportunity. A new chapter in the history of fighting diseases, including oncology, is opening.

BioNTech began work on the vaccine in February/March 2020. In January, we learned about the enemy, the COVID-19 virus, its genetic makeup, and began to figure out, as a humanity, how to hit it. Professor Ugur Sahin came up with the fastest solution in the world by invoking the mRNA mechanism. In early April, the leaders – Pfizer CEO Albert Bourli and Professor Ugur – came to an agreement and the first and second phase of clinical trials were launched, already with Pfizer funding. It is worth emphasizing that as Pfizer we have not received any funding from any government in the world, but we have invested 2 billion dollars.

Initially, there were four variants of a potential vaccine, but after the second phase of the study, an absolute leader emerged, and with this one candidate, in July, we started to enter advanced phase II and phase III studies. In the fourth quarter, we found that we had a 95% efficacy result. Then all the results of the study, which transparently showed the whole process, were submitted to the registration authorities. On December 2, England was the first to register the Comirnaty vaccine, followed by the FDA in the United States on December 12 and the European Union on December 21. We already delivered the first shipment of Comirnaty to all EU countries on December 28, and we only succeeded because we started producing it at our own risk before the authorities registered it.

Pfizer/BioNTech are continuing to work on improving the COVID-19 vaccine. At what stage is the research? Will it soon be possible for children and pregnant women to be vaccinated?

Yes. It’s a race against time, against death and against disease, so first, based on the data from the Phase III clinical trial, the vaccine was registered for people 16 years of age and older. However, we have already submitted registration documents for children aged 12 and older, and the results show that the mRNA vaccine is very effective in the pediatric population. Hopefully, before the vacations we will be able to start vaccinating this group. Obviously, we have already started further studies from the age of 6 months to 12 years, because this group of children also needs to be protected. The results are expected at the beginning of next year.

As far as pregnant women are concerned, we have some experience from Israel, where we have seen many cases where after vaccination it turned out that young women were pregnant. The results there indicate that our vaccine is safe for the fetus. However, we have also started our own clinical trials.

Prevention is better than the cure. Why are vaccinations so important? Are Poles willing to be vaccinated and will the epidemic change attitudes towards vaccination?

When the pandemic started, only 30% of people declared “yes, I will be vaccinated”. It was a dramatic result, Poland was worse in comparison with European Union and non-EU countries than Russia, which is a country known for its very conservative approach to prophylaxis and vaccinations. After several months of educational activities, thanks to doctors and experts, who boldly and consequently presented the mechanism of mRNA, showed the nature of the virus and emphasized how dangerous it is, it came to the point, that 60% of respondents answered “yes, I want to be vaccinated”. This is incredible.

Vaccination remains a fundamental pillar of public health and well-functioning health systems around the world. Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to protect public health, the economy and society. The urgent need for a vaccine to fight a global pandemic has highlighted the critical role of vaccination in protecting lives and economies.

Prevention is always better than the cure. Vaccination and the mRNA mechanism are proof of the genius of human thought, as it is vaccination that has caused the World Health Organization to declare a world free of certain diseases from time to time, such as smallpox. We remember the dramatic consequences of polio after World War II.  Children from the post-war years developed very serious complications as a result of infection with this virus. Within a year and a half, it was possible to change the trend with universal vaccination.

As an innovative pharmaceutical company, Pfizer has been supporting efforts to promote vaccination as the most effective way to prevent disease for years. We feel a responsibility to expand the public’s knowledge of the health effects of vaccinations, as well as the safety of vaccines.

Currently, Pfizer’s vaccine development program is focused on preventing disease caused by pneumococcal, meningococcal, tick-borne encephalitis virus. The COVID-19 pandemic led us to commit all of our research teams and millions of employees around the world to a SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine in 2020, the first in the world to be conditionally approved for use against a coronavirus pandemic.

We have the expertise and the scientists who know how to do it. Until recently, every minute a child under the age of five died from pneumococcus – to me, that was unimaginable as a woman, a mother and a doctor. Now those statistics are much better, because pneumococcal vaccination has become mandatory in many countries. There is also a need to vaccinate our parents and our grandparents against pneumococcus. Immunity of a person 65+ begins to decline, because as we age our immune system dies out, so we are more vulnerable to various diseases including those caused by pneumococcus, such as pneumonia. Our immune system needs to be supported: one dose of vaccination is enough.

The pandemic has been going on for over a year – we can see the long-term effects and draw conclusions. What major changes do you see in health care? What changes might the future bring?

A pandemic verifies any health system, and of course it has verified us as well. For more than 25 years, we have been paying for the neglect of health care, where the philosophy of cheap investments without concern for quality prevailed. We are also at the end of Europe in terms of the percentage of GDP that we spend on health care. Because of this, when the crisis came, we found that we did not have enough trained people and facilities to be able to help people who were seriously ill.

There is a well-known theory and practice in many countries that any money should be spent with the end result in mind, the impact on the patient and the quality of health and life. If we measured money spent in this way, it would be easier to make decisions about which therapies and procedures to fund. Now I don’t want to criticize, I just hope that we all learn a lesson from this, be wiser, more humble and in the future we won’t face a situation where someone saves money on our health and lives.

Dorota Hryniewiecka-Firlej, Ph.D.

Country Manager and Global Innovative Pharma Business Poland Lead in Pfizer.

She graduated from the Medical University in Poznań, with a Ph.D. and specialization in internal medicine. She began her professional career in 1996 in Janssen-Cilag as a pharmaceutical sales representative and assumed the role of Specialty Care Business Unit Lead in 2000. She built her experience in the pharmaceutical industry over the next years, holding managerial positions in Novo Nordisk and Wyeth. In 2009 she joined Pfizer and became a member of the local leadership team. Since 2013, she has been Specialty Care Business Unit Director. In the second half of 2013, parallel, to Specialty Care BU leadership, she also assumed the post of Market Access Director. At the beginning of 2014, Dorota Hryniewiecka-Firlej was appointed Country Manager and Global Innovative Pharma Business Poland Lead in Pfizer, as well as a member of the GIP European leadership team. In life, she is guided by the rule that people are the most important. Her exceptional ability to motivate employees and manage change helps her increase employee involvement and achieve unique results.

Parallel to an active professional life, Dorota acts for the local community. As a sign of recognition, in December 2013 she received an internal award, granted by Pfizer Polska employees, for her community work. In 2014 Dorota Hryniewiecka-Firlej was ranked 14th out of 50 most influential women in Poland according to a long-established monthly economic  “Home & Market” magazine.

Prof. Rafał Mrówka

Professor at the Department of Management Theory of the Warsaw School of Economics, where he specializes in the analysis of modern organization models, problems of economic leadership, employee satisfaction and commitment research, employee competence management and public relations. He is also the manager and lecturer of the MBA-SGH program (one of the best Executive MBA programs in Poland) and the head of Postgraduate Studies in Public Relations and Strategic Communication in Companies at SGH. He is the author of several dozen articles and scientific works, including the books “Leadership in organizations. Best practice analysis “(Wolters Kluwer Polska Publishing House, Warsaw 2010) and” Hyperarchic organization – factors creating, model genesis, management “(Oficyna Wydawnicza SGH, Warsaw 2013) – habilitation thesis, new trends in management, new business models based on open source and collaboration in virtual communities. He completed several training courses, including advanced training on Design Thinking at HPI Academy in Germany and International Management Teachers Academy in Bled, Slovenia. He has lectured or held research programs at Tel Aviv University (Israel) and Universite Catholique de Lille (France).

Rafał Mrówka is also active on the consulting and training market – he has over 18 years of experience in running projects for business, he is a co-owner of the consulting and training company IMMOQEE Sp. z o.o. In his work in consulting, he cooperated, among others with Umbrella Project (UNDP program – UN agencies in Poland), BIGRAM Personnel Consulting, ITO – United Change Company. He implemented projects including for: Hewlett-Packard, Euler Hermes, Tetra Pak, Schneider Electric, Wabco, Microsoft, Auchan, EDS, Esselte, Siemens, Allianz, Totalizator Sportowy, Orbis Hotel Group, Leroy Merlin, Cersanit. He specializes in employee satisfaction surveys, stimulating employee involvement, programs to support organizational innovation, programs for the development of managers’ competences and building the image of an organization, people and products. He is a member of the board of the School for Leaders Foundation creating leadership attitudes in society.

Last Updated on June 1, 2021 by Łukasz