Pascal Soriot deflects shareholder discord over AstraZeneca's legal battles amid 'very encouraging' start to the year

AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot is no stranger to shareholder scrutiny—especially when it comes to the longtime CEO’s pay. But the latest campaign against his re-election is nothing short of “misinformed and misguided,” Soriot said on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

Recently, proxy advisory outfit PIRC urged investors to vote against Soriot’s reinstatement at the company’s annual general meeting being held today, grilling the helmsman on legal battles over AstraZeneca’s stomach acid drug Nexium and side effects tied to the company’s COVID-19 vaccine.

When the conflict surfaced during a first-quarter earnings presentation, the old question came up again: Does AZ’s chief executive have any thoughts about his future and whether he’s thinking of going elsewhere?

The short answer, according to Soriot, is ‘no." And advisory group PIRC’s litigation complaints are “misguided,” the CEO said. As Soriot sees it, “every pharma company faces litigation.”

“It’s unfortunately part of our industry,” he added, noting that AZ doesn’t have more lawsuits in play versus its Big Pharma peers.

As for an £800 million dispute in the U.S. over Nexium, the legal kerfuffle is a “very old case” that predates Soriot’s tenure, the CEO told reporters.

“So quite frankly, it has nothing to do with us, and on top of it, we dispute this case,” Soriot added. He stressed that his company believes the Nexium brouhaha is without merit.

In recent years, AZ investors have repeatedly taken issue with Soriot’s annual pay package. Institutional investors in London planned to vote against the British pharma’s remuneration policy in 2020, while advisory firms Glass Lewis and Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) raised a similar stink in 2021 when they took issue with AZ’s proposal to increase the maximum bonuses and equities Soriot could receive for the year.

Still, in many ways, Soriot has stuck the landing at AZ over the years. After delivering on a promise to grow revenues to more than $40 billion by 2023, the chief executive recently mapped out a new goal to launch at least 15 new drugs by 2030.

Soriot’s latest remarks came as the CEO trumpeted a “very encouraging” start to 2023. The drugmaker delivered total revenues of around $10.9 billion over the first three months of the year. That number was flat versus the first quarter of 2022, when AZ benefited from around $1.5 billion in COVID-related revenues. Especially “remarkable,” according to Soriot, was the fact that the company charted 15% revenue growth from “ex-COVID-19 medicines” in the latest quarter.

Based on those results, AZ is sticking by its previously stated guidance for 2023. Over the full year, AstraZeneca expects total revenue to increase by a low-to-mid single-digit percentage, excluding COVID-19 drugs.