Fact Check-Pfizer CEO's comments on limited COVID-19 vaccine protection refer to the Omicron variant

Recent comments from Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla on how two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine offer “very limited protection” against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus have been misrepresented online.

Some social media users claim the executive means the initial vaccinations were “a failure” or that the vaccine does not protect against COVID-19. This is misleading, as his comments were specific about Omicron.

Iterations can be seen ( here ), ( here ).

Other users ( here ), ( here ), ( here ) compare one of Bourla's recent comments with a tweet he made on April 1, which can be viewed here, and in which he highlighted Phase 3 results from a study of the vaccine showing it was “100% effective in preventing COVID-19 cases” ( here ).

Pfizer did not immediately respond to a request for comment


During an interview with Yahoo Finance on Jan. 10, speaking about the Omicron variant, Bourla said: “We know that the two doses of a vaccine offer very limited protection, if any. The three doses with a booster, they offer reasonable protection against hospitalization and deaths. Against deaths, I think very good, and less protection against infection.” ( )

Bourla said Pfizer is working on a new version of the vaccine. Experts have said current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated to ensure they are effective against Omicron and future variants ( here ).

Speaking at J.P. Morgan's annual healthcare conference, also on Jan. 10, Bourla said Pfizer and BioNTech are working on a vaccine targeting the Omicron variant, as well as a shot that would include both the previous vaccine and one targeted at the fast-spreading variant ( here ).

The executive also appeared on CNBC the same day ( ) where he said: “The protection against the hospitalization and the severe diseases it is reasonable right now with the current vaccines, as long as you are having, let’s say the third dose.”


On Oct. 4, Reuters reported that six months after a second dose, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine effectiveness had dropped to 47% from 88% after the first month, according to a study published in The Lancet Medical journal ( here )

The same analysis also showed that the vaccine remained highly effective, at 90% for at least six months, in preventing hospitalization and death, including against the previously dominant Delta variant ( here ).


The Omicron variant with its large number of mutations is associated with an increase in transmission and immune evasion, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said during a testimony before the U.S. Senate on Jan. 11 ( ).

While potentially less severe ( , here ), the steep rise in case numbers led to record U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations on Jan. 10, Reuters reported ( here ).

A study from the University of Copenhagen Statistics Denmark and Statens Serum Institute (SSI), yet to be peer-reviewed, suggests the Omicron variant is spreading more rapidly than Delta because it is better at evading vaccine-obtained immunity ( here ).

Pfizer and BioNTech said on Dec. 8 that two-doses might not be sufficient to protect against infection with the Omicron variant, but “may still offer protection against severe disease.” ( here ), a sentiment echoed by the World Health Organization on Jan. 4 ( here )

“We don’t have all of the statistics yet from Omicron, but based on what we know on previous variants, Beta and Delta, the vaccines will provide some pretty good protection against severe disease,” Anna Durbin, Professor of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Reuters via phone.

“Your antibodies are your first line of defense, it can protect you from the virus getting in and once the virus gets in, you need your other defenses, which is the T-cells. So, although you may see waning antibody titers, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll see waning protection from severe disease,” she added.

A study ahead of peer-review from South Africa published on Dec. 28, 2021,( here ) showed T-cells induced upon vaccination are highly effective at recognizing and attacking the Omicron variant, thereby preventing most infections from progressing to critical illness ( here ).


Missing context. During an interview on Jan. 10, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot offered “very limited protection” against COVID-19 infection with the Omicron variant. He was not talking about protection against infection by other variants of the coronavirus.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here.