With the race to find a vaccine for COVID-19 in full effect, biotech executives and other insiders from at least 11 companies have made hand over fist - raking in over $1 billion in stock sales after announcing positive developments, according to the New York Times.
In some cases, company insiders are profiting from regularly scheduled compensation or automatic stock trades. But in other situations, senior officials appear to be pouncing on opportunities to cash out while their stock prices are sky high. And some companies have awarded stock options to executives shortly before market-moving announcements about their vaccine progress. -NYT
In May, we noted that insiders at Moderna cashed out on some $30 million in options - while CEO Stephane Bancel has become a billionaire.
The company's market value is now nearly $30 billion thanks to a stream of positive press releases, while insiders have sold around $248 million altogether since January - most of it coming following an April announcement that the company had been selected to receive federal funding to support their efforts.
The Times highlights another case; South San Francisco-based Vaxart, which was selected by the US government to participate in a federal initiative to quickly produce COVID-19 treatments known as Operation Warp Speed.
Vaxart’s shares soared. Company insiders, who weeks earlier had received stock options worth a few million dollars, saw the value of those awards increase sixfold. And a hedge fund that partly controlled the company walked away with more than $200 million in instant profits.
Meanwhile, companies such as Vaxart are allegedly using their inclusion in Operation Warp Speed as marketing ploys.
For example, the headline on Vaxart’s news release declared: “Vaxart’s Covid-19 Vaccine Selected for the U.S. Government’s Operation Warp Speed.” But the reality is more complex.
Vaxart’s vaccine candidate was included in a trial on primates that a federal agency was organizing in conjunction with Operation Warp Speed. But Vaxart is not among the companies selected to receive significant financial support from Warp Speed to produce hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.
Michael R. Caputo, the US Department of Health and Human Services' assistant secretary for public affairs said the agency "has entered into funding agreements with certain vaccine manufacturers, and we are negotiating with others," but added "Neither is the case with Vaxart."
"Vaxart’s vaccine candidate was selected to participate in preliminary U.S. government studies to determine potential areas for possible Operation Warp Speed partnership and support. At this time, those studies are ongoing, and no determinations have been made," he added.
CEO Andrei Floroiu - who received stock options worth approximately $4.3 million in June (and worth $28 million weeks later) - defended his company, saying in a Friday statement "Vaxart abides by good corporate governance guidelines and policies and makes decisions in accordance with the best interests of the company and its shareholders," adding "We believe that Vaxart’s Covid-19 vaccine is the most exciting one in O.W.S. because it is the only oral vaccine (a pill) in O.W.S."
While 'fortunately timed' stock sales are typically legal, they can create the appearance of malfeasance and profiteering from insider information.
"It is inappropriate for drug company executives to cash in on a crisis," said Ben Wakana, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group, Patients for Affordable Drugs. "Every day, Americans wake up and make sacrifices during this pandemic. Drug companies see this as a payday."
Executives at a long list of companies have reaped seven- or eight-figure profits thanks to their work on coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
Shares of Regeneron, a biotech company in Tarrytown, N.Y., have climbed nearly 80 percent since early February, when it announced a collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a Covid-19 treatment. Since then, the company’s top executives and board members have sold nearly $700 million in stock. The chief executive, Leonard Schleifer, sold $178 million of shares on a single day in May.
Alexandra Bowie, a spokeswoman for Regeneron, said most of those sales had been scheduled in advance through programs that automatically sell executives’ shares if the stock hits a certain price. -NYT
Meanwhile, executives and board members for Emergent BioSolutions, Quidel and Luminex have offloaded a combined $85 million in shares following positive announcements regarding vaccines, testing solutions or treatments according to the Times.
In April, Gaithersburg, MD-based Novavax issued a slew of stock awards to all employees when the stock was below $24 "in acknowledgment of the extraordinary work of our employees to implement a new vaccine program." Four senior executives - including CEO Stanley Erck, received awards worth under $20 million at the time.
Now, with shares over $135, the four execs' stock options are worth over $100 million on paper. As long as the company achieves a vaccine testing milestone, which they expect to hit soon, they'll be able to use the options to buy discounted shares as early as 2021 regardless of whether or not they are successful in developing a vaccine.
Read the rest of the report here.