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The Privacy Advisor | Pfizer CPO: 'You really feel the enormity of what we are doing' Related reading: Profiles in Privacy: TikTok’s general counsel proud of ‘building something special’



IAPP CEO and President J. Trevor Hughes, CIPP, hosted Pfizer's Chief Privacy Officer Patrice Ettinger during the IAPP's "Profiles in Privacy" series June 17 on LinkedIn Live.

The mission of multi-national biopharmaceutical company Pfizer is to deliver “breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.” Chief Privacy Officer Patrice Ettinger, CIPP/US, said she may never have understood that more than she has over the past 18 months.

“In 2020, I and probably everybody else were able to relate to that in a new way because all of a sudden, we were all patients,” said Ettinger, who is currently chair of the IAPP’s Board of Directors. “Not that I wasn’t cognizant of it before, but you really feel the enormity of what we are doing and the fact that these contributions are helping to change patients’ lives.”

Pfizer Chief Privacy Officer Patrice Ettinger

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and impacted the entire world, Pfizer launched efforts to research and create a coronavirus vaccine. The company is now expected to produce 3 billion doses and, in the United States alone, nearly 73 million people have received both doses of the vaccine.

With experience in intellectual property and privacy matters at Dow Jones and having created cosmetics company Avon’s first global privacy program, Ettinger said when she joined Pfizer seven years ago she believed she could make a difference at the pharmaceutical company, primarily taking its existing privacy program to the next level. While she’s been successful over the years, Ettinger said her focus in building the program has changed, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s this incredible sense of mission, urgency, that Pfizer has had this past year that permeates to everything, including privacy,” she said, adding what might normally be considered a routine privacy question took on a new sense of purpose.

“If you were asking me a privacy question that had to do with anti-spam regulations, normally that would be incredibly routine. But if we were somehow communicating about temperature monitoring to make sure vaccines stay frozen, that all of a sudden takes on this more purposeful thing,” she said. “So even the routine became more intense, more purposeful as we all focused in on Pfizer’s goal of getting vaccines into arms across the world.”

Ettinger said her team transitioned to a work-from-home environment and she sat on Pfizer’s Global Crisis Management Committee to ensure work could safely continue throughout the pandemic. While there were undoubtedly challenges over the past year, Ettinger said successes in meeting them is a highlight.

“I think one of the challenges has been continuing to make sure the day-to-day work that’s really important gets done, continuing to make sure that we are supporting breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, but also dealing with the pandemic in certain ways — whether working from home or working with the crisis committee and advising them on privacy issues that were new,” she said.

Leading a multi-national pharmaceutical company’s privacy and data protection strategy, Ettinger is cognizant of new and evolving privacy laws and the barriers or obstacles they might present to conducting scientific research, especially as research Pfizer conducts is already highly regulated.

“There are existing laws and regulations that apply to Pfizer’s clinical research and require safeguards to protect patients’ privacy. For example, every clinical trial is reviewed by an ethics committee and patient’s names are replaced with random ID numbers before their data is shared with Pfizer, so we do not know their identity,” she said. “It’s important for policy makers to appreciate this so that research is not adversely affected by concerns around data misuse.”

Privacy work at a life sciences company has its unique aspects, as any industry does, Ettinger said. And while learning the ins and outs took time, she has found a lot of commonalities across the industries she’s worked in.

“Regardless of what industry we are in, data is increasingly the foundation of what we do,” she said. “I still learn everyday about science and research, so it’s an ongoing learning process. I do think that in the past 18 months, the desire to really learn and master it, and the benefit of doing that, became so much more apparent. It’s been so interesting, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to do that.”

She also turned to mentors in the privacy space, like Hilary Wandall, CIPP/E, CIPP/US, CIPM, FIP, who was then chief privacy officer at global pharmaceutical company Merck. “I practically stalked her to better understand the things that were new to me. She was a scientist before she became a lawyer, and she had that advantage,” Ettinger said. “You do what you need to do in the beginning to get up to speed and then you just keep learning.”

Ettinger, who founded the IAPP’s Women Leading Privacy Board, also noted the supportiveness of the privacy community, which isn’t always the case in other professions.

“I do think it may have been born out of the fact that privacy is still in its infancy, and we’re sort of all experiencing things as they evolve,” she said. “People are very communicative and everyone wants to make sure we are all thinking through these new and challenging issues together.”

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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