Just as the novel coronavirus was gaining a foothold in the United States in mid-March, Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Albert Bourla called on his top vaccine scientists and laid out a clear mission.

"He basically said, ‘Your mandate is to get this vaccine made. And if you need resources, you come and you ask for them, and you're going to get them,’” said chief viral vaccine scientist Philip Dormitzer.

The assignment was both inspiring and daunting. It provided researchers with the backing to tackle something that had never been done before: design a vaccine to stop a pandemic in its tracks in less than a year.