As the pandemic began to rage a year ago, the biopharmaceutical industry responded in an unprecedented way. Life science companies rushed to find a solution to the nightmare virus, and promising vaccination efforts quickly sprung up. The stocks of companies with the best vaccine candidates have skyrocketed, and many of their executives have rushed to sell stocks with a fury that has drawn close scrutiny.
There was a huge exception. Uğur Şahin, the CEO and scientist behind the first approved Covid-19 vaccine in the United States, did not sell a single share of his company’s booming shares during the pandemic, according to Securities and Exchange Commission.
Şahin’s decision not to sell any of its BioNTech shares stands in stark contrast to the significant share sales of some of the most prominent scientists and entrepreneurs whose biotech companies have developed vaccines against the virus, in particular Moderna Therapeutics. It also reflects the general approach to Şahin life and business. He is a CEO who lives in a modest apartment in the German city of Mainz, he rides his bike to work and does not own a car. He describes himself on his LinkedIn Page first and foremost as a professor of translational oncology at University Medical Center Mainz. Şahin accepts the financial edifice that surrounds biotech innovation – fundraising, IPOs and mergers. He would have learned the business aspects of biotechnology from online videos and reading a Business plans for dummies delivered. But at the end of the day, inahin is there for the science and the patients.
In a time when he needed it most, Şahin emerged from relative obscurity to provide the world with a revolutionary vaccine that could save lives and tame the pandemic. As early as January 2020, Şahin was convinced that Covid-19 would become a deadly pandemic and pivoted BioNTech to create a messenger RNA vaccine to combat it. He then partnered with the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine drastically changed Wall Street’s perception of BioNTech. In the months leading up to the pandemic, Şahin had come to New York to sell investors on BioNTech shares as the company launched its initial public offering by listing on the Nasdaq.
Filings filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission in February and March show that Şahin controls 41.66 million BioNTech shares, a 17% stake, through Medine GmbH, a limited liability company of which he is the exclusive owner. Medine holds a relatively small number of shares for “a former colleague” and transferred 27,540 shares held for other colleagues to their beneficiaries under trust agreements at the end of last year. But in the midst of this transfer of shares, a securities deposit in February made sure to point out that “Neither Medine GbmH nor Professor Ugur Sahin, MD have sold common shares since February 13, 2020”, on the eve of the pandemic. Such drafted disclosures are not common in securities filings. Şahin, who declined to comment, appears to have wanted people to understand that he was not selling any BioNTech shares.
Last year, the officers and directors of companies like Moderna, Pfizer and Novavax
Moderna has consistently explained that all sales of executive stocks are made through pre-defined trading plans established under Securities Regulation 10b5-1, which legally allows insiders to periodically sell a pre-determined number of ‘actions, often linked to the achievement of certain course objectives.
In November, the CEO of Pfizer Albert Bourla sold around 60% of his shares in the company for around $ 5.6 million under a pre-defined 10b5-1 plan. The sale took place the same day Pfizer announced key clinical results showing its Covid-19 vaccine to be over 90% effective. The sale of Bourla shares was authorized in February 2020 and updated in August. A few days later, Jay Clayton, then chairman of the SEC, suggested company executives do not trade their company’s shares immediately after pre-defined trading plans are established. During a Senate hearing, Clayton called for a “cooling off” period, but did not specify how long such an interval would be. “Whether it’s four months to cover a full shift, or six months, I can argue either way,” Clayton said. There were also concerns that sales of shares of Moderna and Pfizer could undermine public perception of their vaccines as essential public health instruments.
For its part, Şahin has not sold any BioNTech shares during the past 18 months. The post-IPO blockade of his BioNTech shares expired near the start of the pandemic, according to the securities filings, and he was free to sell. As a result of hanging on to all stocks, ironically, it is so far much richer – at least on paper – given the continued surge in BioNTech’s share price. He certainly believes that the company’s advanced technology will lead to the development of therapies and vaccines for other diseases.
“The way we develop our technologies is not based on the idea of a one-ride pony,” Şahin told investors during a phone call to Wall Street in March. “Rather, our goal from the start was to build a new industrial approach to precision pharmaceuticals that can meet medical needs in multiple disease areas.”