Meet the man who delivered Pfizer’s Covid vaccine

While scientists performed their magic, engineer Mike McDermott was charged with managing a fifteen-fold increase in the group’s vaccine manufacturing capacity

When Pfizer and BioNTech delivered the vaccine that would go on to do most of the heavy lifting in battling Covid-19 worldwide, the scientists who put it together using new mRNA technology got the plaudits. But it was Mike McDermott who had to take the science and deliver the vials of vaccine that increasingly panicked governments worldwide were clamouring for at the end of 2020.

McDermott is head of global supply at Pfizer and it was his job to safely ramp up manufacturing capacity so that the company could move quickly once its vaccine got the green light from regulators.

“Hard”, “extraordinary”, “crazy”, “impossible” and “tense” are all words that crop up in his conversation as he looks back over the events of the past two and a half years as the company, and others, delivered in nine months what would normally take up to 10 years.

Even before the vaccine, Covid-19 had represented a step into the unknown.

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“Before there was a vaccine, people were being hospitalised, intubated, ventilated, and that drove a massive increase in medicines needed to treat patients,” McDermott recalls. “So, we had almost a sixfold increase in our hospital medicines that we had to produce.

“Imagine, while the world is in lockdown, I’m adding a six-times increase in output at sites.

“Then of course, Pfizer announces that we’re partnering with BioNTech to develop a vaccine, that ultimately resulted in a 15-times increase in my vaccine production. So, pre-pandemic, I was producing about 200 million doses of vaccines, all my sites around the world, and we went to three billion doses.”

He recalls the initial ambition of Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla was to double capacity so that Pfizer would deliver as much Covid vaccine as it did for all its existing vaccines.

McDermott immediately got going, spending $600 million on designing equipment and buying ingredients for a vaccine that might never materialise.

“By the time the results [of the clinical trials] came out, the conclusion was that we don’t need 200 million doses, we need two billion, three billion doses, so yeah that was a tense time. It was almost an impossible notion. How could you do 15 times [pre-Covid capacity]. Two times, five times all seemed kind of crazy, 15 times seemed impossible.”

“I think the way we got there was by really letting our people explore and letting the innovation flow, taking away all the bureaucracy from within the company and funding all of these seemingly crazy ideas that ultimately laddered up to being able to achieve that goal – including the mRNA drug substance for the vaccine made here in Ireland at Grange Castle.”

McDermott is talking to us at Pfizer’s state-of-the-art plant in west Dublin, where he has just announced the largest single manufacturing investment in the drug giant’s history – a €1.3 billion project that will double the site’s capacity to manufacture new-generation biologic medicines and add around 500 more jobs to the 2,000 on site.

As with Covid, he is planning for the future. The additional capacity is largely designed for drugs that are currently in Pfizer’s pipeline, not yet approved. It’s a high-risk move in a business where most pipeline products never make it to market but the scale of the investment is a sign of the group’s confidence in the medicines in development.

The visit to Dublin is more personal for McDermott than might be the case with some of his other 36 manufacturing sites worldwide. The New Jersey native is a proud Irish American who has been back to Monaghan from where his coachbuilder grandfather and his grandmother, who was from a farming family, both emigrated separately before meeting each other in New York.

Some of the work of his grandfather and his great-grandfather, who had a coachbuilding operation in Monaghan town, is on display in the local museum and he also got to visit the long disused workshop they operated out of.

What are you going to do next? You know, you saved the world, now what?

—  Mike McDermott

McDermott says “every inch” of capacity at the Grange Castle site first built over 20 years ago and added to several times in the interim has been consumed. He should know. An engineer by training, he has been a lifer in the sector, working for the past 33 years first with Wyeth, the company that originally built Grange Castle, and then with Pfizer after it took over Wyeth to boost its presence in biologics.

“Pfizer’s pipeline is incredibly strong right now,” he says. “You’ve seen us in action during the Covid pandemic, with Comirnaty [vaccine] and Paxlovid [an antiviral Covid medication], but now we have a strong pipeline coming through. And the vast majority of them [are] in this large molecule space where Grange Castle has its expertise.

“So, it will be for new product portfolio. By the nature of the pharmaceutical industry, most of the products that we discover and bring through clinical trials don’t reach patients. But, between our pipeline and between the changes that will come, and the flexibility and capability of this site, we’re quite confident that that new capacity will be consumed.”

And it’s not a one-off. After leaving Dublin, McDermott announces a €1.2 billion investment the following day at the group’s biologics plant at Puurs in Belgium, which was its first European Covid vaccine production base. A few days later, a further €750 million investment in manufacturing capacity in the US is also announced.

Modern drug manufacturing plants are complex and expensive investments and, like the existing capacity at Grange Castle, the new biologics facility will feature three shifts working around the clock.

“I liken it to an aeroplane,” McDermott says. “It’s a very expensive piece of equipment and so you work hard to fill it to get your return on investment. Our sites are highly utilised because they’re such a massive investment,” while still keeping a little back to deal with new products, pandemics and the like.

Are expectations high now after the success in delivering on the Covid vaccine with a mix of the company’s own plants and outsourcing deals with rivals like Sanofi, which had a long history in vaccine manufacture?

“Yes, the expectations are incredibly high but I think in a good way. In some ways, it’s the notion of, well you did that, what are you going to do next? You know, you saved the world, now what?

So yes, there’s a bit of pressure but actually it also builds confidence that we have the capability, the technology and the amazing colleagues that can deliver the next breakthrough.”

There’s been a lot of talk in Ireland in recent days about the potential impact of the housing crisis on investment and whether firms like Pfizer will be able to attract the 500 people they will need to recruit to operate the new building on the west Dublin site. But McDermott is sanguine. He says the ability of successive Irish governments to deliver amazing economic growth over a number of decades gives him confidence for the future.

“I’m not saying there aren’t issues but Ireland has a great track record and I think that will lead to great results in the future,” he says.

He’s similarly reluctant to get involved in the ongoing debate about access to drugs in the Irish market, an area that does not cross his particular desk, though he makes the general point that it serves little purpose to have therapies that can save and improve people’s lives if a patient cannot access it.

“In America, we think about pizzas all the time,” he says, “so one slice of that pizza, one eighth of the pizza is the cost of drugs to the healthcare system, so we’re actually a small portion of it despite the fact that people like to magnify it to be the biggest issue.

“We know healthcare is a big part of governments’ investment but we also know through the data that our drugs create outcomes, they keep people out of hospitals or get them out of the hospital quicker. That’s money saved for the healthcare system and if your patient can’t access that, then the system cannot benefit.”

What does really exercise him is the issue of diversity – not the first thing that might come to mind for a hard-headed engineer whose over-riding responsibility is to “get it done”. Part of it is practical and part personal.

“We don’t need any more studies to tell you that diverse teams, diverse companies outperform non-diverse, there isn’t a study that doesn’t conclude the same thing, it’s just a question of how much,” says McDermott who is credited by Pfizer with introducing several diversity initiatives across its manufacturing network.

“The other part of it is who do we serve? Right? We serve white men, but nah, we serve women, we serve people of colour, we serve people all over the world, so how in the world could we discover, develop, manufacture life-saving drugs for a group of people we know nothing about, right? So, our workforce must reflect our patients.”

Closer to home, McDermott’s sister studied alongside him in engineering school, undermining from an early age any notion of gender having a role to play in people’s ability to perform certain roles or jobs.

“And then I’m the father of five daughters, so I want them to be in a workplace that they feel they can be their best and perform at their best.

“They still meet with unwelcoming remarks, they still meet with not being as comfortable as they should be in school and in work, and it frustrates the hell out of me that we’re still sort of cycling on this just pure gender diversity, never mind anything else. So that’s a big driver.”

Alongside the excitement of delivering the vaccine, Covid also brought some more sobering reminders. “Sadly, the hatred and violence towards the black community peaked in the US during Covid, and let’s face it, around the world. And I think that that was such an important moment for us to really understand that we think we’re getting better at this, but are we really any better at this?”

“It kind of emboldened me as well to have that same level of energy and focus towards the advancements of women in the workforce, as it is for people of colour and people of different sexual preferences, et cetera. So yeah, it’s personal for me. But here’s the beauty – when something is personal to you and it adds value, life is good.”

It will be four or five years before this latest Pfizer investment is up and running. It marks a cumulative investment of €9 billion in the group’s Irish plants which, between them, employ 5,000 people. So, with ever-present political pressure to onshore investment closer to home, does McDermott think Ireland can pitch for further investment in coming cycles?

“I think past success is a good predictor of the future. There’s no doubt that other countries are trying to do what Ireland has done, that’s abundantly clear. And there’s competition for these investments and we will make investments in other locations. But I think the future continues to be bright. Yeah, it’s a good bet.”

C.V.

Name: Mike McDermott

Age: 57

Position: Chief Global Supply Officer and Executive Vice President at Pfizer

Family: married to Katie with five adult daughters

Interests: Mike “likes what his daughters like”, especially spending time with his family. He also has an interest in building and renovating cars.

Something you might expect: With a name like McDermott, he can trace his roots back to Ireland, more specifically Monaghan

Something that might surprise: His father was a Nasa engineer on the Apollo programme who was in Mission Control as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969