Investors lose vote to share covid vaccine know-how

In Summary
  • Drug-makers say they are making doses faster than they can be used.
  • More than 11.4 billion doses of vaccine have now been distributed worldwide
A vial labelled "AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine" is seen in this illustration taken January 16, 2022.
A vial labelled "AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine" is seen in this illustration taken January 16, 2022.

Three of the world's biggest Covid vaccine makers have seen off attempts to make them share the know-how to make their jabs.

A group of investors put proposals to the annual shareholder's meetings of Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna but were voted down.

They argued sharing this intellectual property would speed up the rollout of vaccines by boosting manufacturing.

But the drug-makers say they are making doses faster than they can be used.

More than 11.4 billion doses of vaccine have now been distributed worldwide, although a third of the global population has not had a single dose, according to the head of the World Health Organization Tedros Ghebreyesus.

Taking the unprecedented step of addressing the Moderna annual general meeting (AGM), he said their help to boost vaccine production "would save lives, decrease the risk of variants and reduce the pandemic's economic toll".

But his argument that the "global inequity would lead to many more deaths" was not enough to convince shareholders. Only 24% backed the idea of the company undertaking a feasibility study into transferring intellectual property and technical know-how to manufacturers in low and middle-income countries.

Amongst Pfizer shareholders, only 27.3 per cent were in favour of a similar motion. Johnson & Johnson has not yet released numbers but the proposal also failed there.

Netherlands-based Achmea Investment Management is leading a group of 65 firms who collectively control $3.5 trillion of assets, and support the idea.

"I think a significant amount of the investors have shown us the support of these steps," Frank Wagemans, Achmea's senior engagement specialist told the BBC.

But he added: "We need more in the months and years ahead because we know the covid pandemic is not over yet."

He said it was a "small win" that Moderna had at least introduced a link between executive bonuses and how well the firm meets the demand for covid vaccines from less well-off countries.

"The global economic recovery continues to be constrained by unequal access to tools to prevent and treat Covid-19," International Monetary Fund economist Ruchir Agarwal told the BBC.

The development body says an improved roll-out can help boost the global economy by $9 trillion by 2025.

Last year Moderna delivered 807 million doses of Covid vaccines, which made it a profit of $12.2bn. It says that more than a quarter of these went to low or middle-income countries.

Laying out the case against the shareholder proposal, its board of directors said it could have delivered more if it hadn't been for "last mile" difficulties and highlighted Africa as an example.

These problems include refrigeration capacity, the availability of health workers and vaccine hesitancy. The US-based firm also says its working with its partners to increase production and is building a manufacturing facility in Kenya to increase the future availability of vaccines.

Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer, which developed its vaccine with BioNTech, told his shareholders that 3.4 billion vaccine doses have now been distributed in 179 countries.

Opposing the sharing of its intellectual property, the company's board argued that "vaccine manufacturing is a biological product that is extraordinarily complex", involving 280 ingredients from 86 suppliers in 19 countries. They added there was a risk to patients if other manufacturers were not able to meet all the requirements to make their vaccines properly.

It is expanding production to four billion does this year, with a quarter going to less well-off countries. Those with the lowest incomes will get the vaccines at cost price, Bourla told shareholders.

Johnson & Johnson has had hundreds of millions of dollars of US taxpayers' support to develop its vaccine. It says last year it worked with the African Union and Covax alliance to provide 900 million doses at a not-for-profit price and that it is working on a licensing agreement with an African company that would ensure safety standards are adhered to.

The proposals to share intellectual property were submitted by Oxfam USA, which owns shares in each of the pharmaceutical firms, allowing it to push for changes.

The arguments of all three against its motions "don't hold water", according to Robbie Silverman, from Oxfam USA.

"What the donation-based status quo has achieved is 74 per cent vaccination rates in rich countries and 12 per cent vaccination rates in poor countries," he said.

Vaccine hesitancy has been exaggerated by the drug makers, he told the BBC, adding that a system controlled by a few giant companies has caused distribution problems.

"It makes it very hard to plan on the ground when you don't know how many doses are coming," he said.

"Lower incomes countries are saying give us the tools that we need to manufacture our own doses for our own citizens, and that locally based manufacturing will solve many problems."

Achmea's Wagemans is optimistic change will still come, saying it takes time to change corporate policies and the votes sent a "strong message towards management".