Northern Vermont University Alum Played Role in Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Development

Northern Vermont University Alum Played Role in Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Development

When the clinical trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were scheduled at Pfizer’s New Haven (Ct.) Clinical Research Unit location, Pfizer Environmental Health and Safety Manager and Industrial Hygiene Lead Chris Vollaro ’93 got to work setting the protocols to ensure the health and safety of all involved.

It was a huge job. From Pfizer employees and outside people coming into the facility, to the animals that were part of the vaccine trials, continuing on to the huge ramp-up in manufacturing that occurred at the company’s 5,300-employee Groton, Ct., global headquarters for research and development — so many health and safety decisions needed to be made and implemented every step of the way. Chris had a hand in all of it, working seven days a week to meet the demands of this critical role. “It was a pretty crazy year,” he said. “But it’s neat to be involved in something like this.”

Chris, who was an environmental science major and biology minor on the NVU-Johnson campus, has worked in the environmental health field since right after graduation. He managed the State of Vermont Health Department’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, and later worked with Vermont OSHA. Chris joined Pfizer (then Wyeth) in 2002, and his role expanded this year to cover all aspects of safety surrounding the testing and subsequent production of the lipid nano particle of the mRNA vaccine — the small fat particle that delivers the vaccine into the cells of the body.

Chris earned his master’s degree at a larger university, but says he “had by far a better experience at Johnson.” The employment options he had upon graduation “were directly a result of working with my professors,” he said, relationships he’s kept going over the years. “I really appreciate the lessons they taught. They encouraged us to challenge things, to not just go with what the book says. I had nothing but a good experience.”

Chris ran cross country and track during his college years, and running remains an important part of his life today. He is a member of the USATF Sound Runner Racing Club in Connecticut, and says,“Running was a lifesaver during COVID. The work was so all consuming, that it was so important to have that hour-plus a day to train where the world seemed normal.”