The Swede Behind the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine

Mikael Dolsten. Photo: Pfizer

Lund University alumnus Mikael Dolsten is the Chief Scientific Officer at Pfizer in the United States. Pfizer is, of course, the American pharmaceutical company that launched one of the first fully certified vaccines against COVID-19 in the fall of 2020. As Head of Research, Dolsten has been the “conductor of the symphony orchestra” that pulled all the necessary resources together to develop the vaccine in less than a year – a process that would normally require a decade. 

Much has been written about the fact that the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at a very cold temperature. Compared to other COVID-19 vaccines, this is a drawback when it comes to distributing it to remote communities, especially in the developing world. However, one advantage of the Pfizer vaccine is that it can readily be used as a booster if a person’s immunity begins to wear off. Another advantage is that it can be quickly adapted for maximum effectiveness against new strains of the virus. This is so because it is based on so-called mRNA, a molecule that may be processed and edited. 

Dolsten grew up in Halmstad in the south of Sweden. He went on to study medicine at Lund University, obtained a PhD in cancer immunology, and was eventually appointed Adjunct Professor. In parallel he worked for the Swedish pharmaceutical companies Pharmacia and Astra. Pharmacia was later bought by Pfizer, and Astra became UK-based AstraZeneca. 

In 2004, Dolsten and his family settled for good in the United States. While at Pfizer, he served as scientific advisor to the Obama administration’s task force for improving regulatory and drug development, as well as to VP Biden for the coordination of cancer research. He holds dual Swedish-US citizenship. 

During his time as a young researcher at Lund, he was granted a scholarship which enabled him to travel abroad and gain experience of international research. 

“That is something I am grateful for today,” he stated in an interview. “As a researcher you are part of a global knowledge community and need to get impressions of how others work, learn new techniques and gain new approaches. Travel scholarships are a tremendous investment in young researchers.” 

Mikael Dolsten spent 20 years in Lund, and the southern Swedish city has always occupied a special place in his heart. He therefore did not need much persuasion to accept a recent invitation to return to his Alma Mater, despite his heavy workload at Pfizer. As of January 1, 2021, he is a Visiting Professor at the University, intent on sharing his knowledge not only in research but also in the best ways to manage innovation and create entrepreneurial structures, so as to maximize the practical benefits of the research.

By Peter Berlin