From vaccine halo to liability? Reputation tracker says COVID-19 shot makers now dinged for safety, supply issues

COVID-19 vaccine
Pharma companies' reputation remain in peril, despite vaccine makers' best efforts, thanks to safety, supply and pricing issues, one environmental, social and governance evaluator says. (Getty/Meyer & Meyer)

COVID-19 vaccine makers' time in the sun is over, according to one reputation tracker. The reputation boost ignited by the rush to find solutions during the pandemic has not only faded but now is turning into a liability, says Alva, citing its latest research.

Pharma is now split into vaccine makers and everyone else, said Alastair Pickering, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Alva market intelligence group.

Vaccine owners notched big negative scores in its March-May research. Johnson & Johnson landed at -39 and AstraZeneca at -25, mostly on reports and conversations around shots being linked to blood clots.

“The existence of the vaccines is now almost taken for granted in a majority of coverage,” Pickering said. “Aside from scientific journals, there’s practically no praise or commendation for the research, science and innovation that’s gotten us to the point of having vaccines. Instead the focus has shifted to safety concerns over individual vaccines and ongoing supply challenges.”

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Meanwhile, vaccine “helpers” like Merck & Co. scored a 58, boosted by praise for its J&J manufacturing partnership to speed supply, and Novartis got a 34 thanks in part to its vaccine manufacturing deal with CureVac.

Alva analyzed and scored the media coverage, government reports and social media sources across 26 different industry-standard environmental, social and governance topics from employee engagement and access and affordability to business ethics and supply chain management. It then combined the category evaluations to come up with an overall score for each company for the March-May study period.

For the pharma results, Sanofi (68), Biogen (63) and Roche (59) garnered the top three scores. It’s worth noting that the study time frame likely shielded Biogen—for now—from any negative blowback around the controversial FDA approval in June for its Alzheimer’s disease drug Aduhelm.

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Because the non-vaccine makers aren’t saddled with the pandemic news of the day, those companies can highlight other ESG issues consumers and investors care about.

Sanofi, for instance, scored well on the creation of a new nonprofit unit that will, among other things, provide essential medicines to many of the world’s poorest countries.

Beyond the vaccine effect, Alva found negative pharma coverage still has the power to knock promising ESG results off the mark.

GlaxoSmithKline dropped to the bottom of the ESG list after sexual harassment allegations were revealed against one of its longtime employees, Moncef Slaoui, who also ran Operation Warp Speed under the Trump administration. GSK immediately cut ties with him, but the scandal still bruised its reputation during the study time period. Teva and AbbVie suffered similar drops after antitrust investigations in Teva’s case and a U.S. congressional probe into Humira’s patent practices were launched.

“The recurrence of these issues–and continued reference to past misdemeanors—perpetuates negative stakeholder perceptions” around pharma companies and can create doubt about its commitments to ESG, Alva found.