Sally Susman on the Moment Pfizer’s Vaccine Proved Effective

One of the brightest lights at the end of a very long 2020 is the promise that all this — the suffering, disruption and damage from the global coronavirus pandemic — is about to come to an end. 

The ubiquitous charts and maps showing infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths are now being counterbalanced with a new kind of count — the number of people who have been vaccinated.

Now the unprecedented push to distribute that vaccine is underway and retail can play an important role, said Sally Susman, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, who previously worked at The Estée Lauder Cos.

Susman spoke on the podcast “Retales From the Frontline,” hosted by retail veteran Matt Rubel, chief executive officer of Empower, a blank check company looking to make a deal in the consumer space. The podcast is hosted by members of the Berns Communications Group’s Retail Influencer Network.

Pfizer, working in conjunction with BioNTech, was the first to get its vaccine approved in the U.S. and into the arms of front-line medical workers and, soon, many more.

Rubel described the vaccine as “a major step forward for humanity” and asked what retailers can do now. 

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“The governors are doing their best, but it’s a monumental challenge to create front-line retail distribution at this level,” she said of the vaccine rollout, which is also being helped by the likes of Walgreen’s and CVS. “And each [governor] has their own bespoke plan, they know their states, they know where their senior centers, where the hospitals are most in need.” 

Retailers can also help educate people on the science behind the vaccine. 

“Now is the time to not only communicate, but over communicate,” Susman said. “People are anxious, they need more information, not less. It’s very clear that people want to hear from people they know, medical professionals. Retailers are known to people, the store on the corner, the favorite place in the mall.

“There’s a tremendous amount of great and clear information available from places like the [Centers for Disease Control] and other scientific-based, medical-based kind of places,” she said. 

The vaccine push and retail rollout comes at the end of a long process that’s involved a complicated and cooperative push by the medical industry.  

It’s an effort that has turned out better than many hoped, with a vaccine ready in less than a year and highly effective in trials.  

Sally Susman 

Susman described the moment when Pfizer’s top brass, huddled in a small Connecticut office, learned the vaccine worked. 

“We had over 44,000 people in our clinical trials,” she said. “Half the people got the vaccine and half the people got a salt-water placebo. We had almost 100 people who got COVID-19, they would unblind them and find out how many that got sick and had our vaccine.

“When they opened up those results and they called — our scientists were there and our scientists told us that over 95 percent of the people who had COVID-19 had received the placebo,” she recalled. “This meant that our vaccine was highly, highly effective.”

Susman said the company’s chief scientist was hoping for 70 percent effective. 

“We had no dreams that it would be this high and when they told our ceo that it was 90 percent effective, he said, ‘One-nine? Or 90?’ Because it was just such an incredible number. 

“We were so nervous waiting for this, we were trying to kill time, we were watching TV, we were pacing, we were playing with our phones and then the moment came, we jumped for joy,” she said. “Some of us cried, we all couldn’t wait to call our families because we had been working on this 24/7 for 10 months and it was just this profound moment…we knew we could actually do this.”

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