Boards and investors can help solve global vaccine inequity

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The world has just passed the 5 million COVID-19 deaths mark. These are reported deaths; the true death toll is 2-3 fold higher.

Every week around 50,000 people die of COVID-19. Presumably most were unvaccinated and didn’t have to die.

Without speedy vaccination of the world, millions more will die.

In the face of these numbers, we should reflect and make sure we are pulling every possible lever to address the world’s  most pressing challenge: vaccine inequity and injustice. 

While the world has rightfully focused on governments and companies, there has been less focus on corporate boards (who have ultimate accountability) or investors (who provide the incentives).  

Should Boards of Directors of COVID-19 vaccine producers be accountable for their company doing its part in reaching widely accepted global targets like vaccinating 40% of the by the end of 2021 or 70% by mid-2022? 

I say yes.  Boards are ultimately accountable for the corporation. On the positive side, Boards could be implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. On the negative side, they could be protecting the brand of their company from falling into disrepute.

COVID-19 vaccine company board members have led institutions committed to global public good and equity.  Here are the boards of some of the companies, which include members who have led major government and philanthropic organisations: PfizerBioNTech, Moderna, JnJ, Astra-Zeneca.

If Boards should care because they are ultimately accountable for the corporation, why should investors — like Baillie Gifford (in Moderna); BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street (in Pfizer and JnJ) — care about vaccine equity?

For universal owners (e.g., BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard), the status quo increases the risk of generating a variant that could evade vaccines and have widespread social and economic consequences.

For ethical investors, the case is ever more straightforward: the current situation of global vaccine inequity is immoral.

But how do boards and investors know appraise their company’s performance on global vaccine equity?

Amnesty International can help. The scoreboard below charts the percentage of vaccines going to low and lower-middle income countries at the 25 day mark of Amnesty’s 100 day challenge, urging pharmaceutical companies to allocate at least 50% of COVID-19 vaccines produced go to low and lower-middle income countries: 

Moreover, none of these companies have joined technology sharing mechanisms such as WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (CTAP) or COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub.

The ‘asks’ to companies are clear, consistent, and continually repeated. 

1. Prioritize vaccine delivery for COVAX and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) — and also provide transparency around delivery schedules so countries can prepare.

2. Share know-how, technology and intellectual property — for example with the WHO – South Africa Technology Transfer Hub or through CTAP.

What can investors do?  The climate crisis offers lessons. For example, Engine No 1 has successfully got its candidates elected as board directors through its ReenergizeExxon campaign.  See also this great blog.

There are some straightforward actions investors in vaccine producing companies can take.  At the AGM, consider how the company contributes to vaccine equity in casting your vote on resolutions regarding executive compensation and directors appointments.  No vaccine equity, vote no.

Indeed, the companies would be better with civil society voices committed to vaccine equity on their boards. I float that idea here.

Oxfam recently introduced shareholder resolutions to push Pfizer, Moderna and JnJ to address vaccine inequity.

Companies might argue that we’ll be “swimming in vaccine” in a few month’s time, perhaps, but the situation is so desperate that leaders are floating the idea of airlifting vaccines. 

Sharing know-how, technology and licenses isn’t just about stopping COVID-19, it’s about keeping everyone safe from the next variant and the next pandemic.  It’s also about addressing the underlying structural injustices that perpetuate inequity.

As board members and investors you can stop the carnage from vaccine inequity and make the world safer in the future. Will you?