It’s a subtle irony that during a global pandemic it was the notorious “Big Pharma” industry that saved the world, giving us not one but several working vaccines in record time. Their record in the wake of the vaccines’ development, though, suggests very divergent paths and philosophies.
The vaccine development was largely funded by governments, which has allowed some companies to be altruistic. Britain’s AstraZeneca, which developed a COVID-19 vaccine in partnership with the University of Oxford, has promised to deliver billions of shots on a not-for-profit basis, selling them for a few dollars per dose. Johnson & Johnson, too, has made its vaccine available for a very low cost.
But other companies, such as Pfizer and Moderna, are expecting to rake in huge profits from their COVID-19 vaccines. (Pfizer is forecasting $15 billion in revenue this year, while Moderna is expecting $18 billion).
Yet, regardless of the profit outlook from the vaccine itself, most vaccine makers have already seen their stock prices surge during the pandemic. And “insider” trades at these opportune times have made their top executives millions of dollars wealthier.
Directors and executives at Pfizer, Moderna and 11 other companies with COVID-19 vaccines under development sold nearly $500 million worth of stock in 2020, according to data compiled by The Wall Street Journal.
Moderna executives alone were responsible for more than $300 million worth of stock changed hands through 700 transactions. Notably, CEO Stéphane Bancel sold $98 million of shares last year, and chief medical officer Tal Zaks unloaded $50 million of shares.
Last November, on the day Pfizer declared its mRNA vaccine a success, CEO Albert Bourla immediately cashed out 60 percent of his stake in the company, worth $5.6 million. Pfizer shares had just jumped 15 percent to a 12-month high.
Executives at Merck, whose vaccine effort was discontinued in January, sold $58 million worth of stock in 2020. Those at Novavax sold $40 million shares in August and September after the company hit testing milestones.
But there was one notable exception. Uğur Şahin the CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, which provided the core science behind Pfizer’s vaccine, hasn’t cashed out any of his BioNTech stock since February 2020, per Forbes. BioNTech went public in October 2019, not long before the coronavirus broke out in China. The company’s stock has surged 900 percent since then, making Şahin’s stake worth $6.1 billion.
Şahin is a translational oncology professor at University Medical Center Mainz in Germany. He and his wife, Özlem Türeci, founded BioNTech in 2008 on a quest to find a cancer treatment using novel technologies such as messenger RNA. The couple, who are both billionaires now, still live in a modest apartment with their teenage daughter in Mainz and ride bicycles to work, according to a New York Times profile in November.
Most “insider” trades that occurred during the pandemic didn’t actually violate insider trading laws because they were executed through a series of predetermined trading schedules. However, after the coronavirus outbreak, some executives amended their trading plans or established new ones in order to sell shares more quickly. All told, they sold four times more shares in 2020 than the prior year, per the Journal.
Vaccine makers are under growing pressure to forgo some of their profits so that the pandemic can end soon. The Biden administration is considering temporarily lifting patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to allow more companies to contribute to vaccine production.
India and South Africa are among around 100 countries asking the World Trade Organization to waive COVID-19 related patent protections until the world reaches herd immunity.