ALEX BRUMMER: Soriot must return to save Astrazeneca’s reputation

ALEX BRUMMER: Pascal Soriot must jet back from his lockdown bolthole to safeguard Astrazeneca’s reputation

The pandemic has created a great divide between people who think they can work efficiently from the back bedroom and those who believe that creativity and productivity flow from the collaboration and accessibility that comes from being in a commercial setting.

It is less than ideal that Pascal Soriot, who is helping to lead the nation, Europe and large swathes of the world out of Covid, has spent the last several months at his home in Australia.

As good as modern communications are, the AstraZeneca boss is in the wrong time zone and far away from the regulatory flare-ups and political storms which have swirled up around the Oxford vaccine.

Missing in action: Astrazeneca boss Pascal Soriot, who is helping to lead Britain, Europe and much of the world out of Covid, has spent the last several months at his home in Australia

Soriot did a wonderful thing when he backed the development, trials and manufacture of a vaccine for all mankind at cost. 

Competitors Pfizer and Moderna are piling up the earnings with £11billion and £13billion in extra revenues respectively. 

But the noble aspirations of Soriot’s pledge of 3bn doses for the world has been marred by communications failures, disputed trials, manufacturing slippages and politics.

Soriot’s fellow Frenchman and ‘friend’ Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, is blunt in his assessment of AZ chief executive’s leadership.

At a time when European factories and nations are struggling to cope with the vaccine rollout he argues that managing AZ from nearly 10,000 miles away on the Sydney harbour front is mistaken.

As pathetic as the EU response to immunisation has been, Breton is on the right track. AZ’s production problems have stretched across the globe from India to the United States. 

AZ also has faced a cascade of regulatory difficulties in Europe and the US, and a lesser extent the UK, all of which have cast a shadow over his leadership.

If Soriot had been present in London to preside over his pandemic war cabinet, with the same intensity as he defended Astra from being swallowed by Pfizer in 2014, much of this could have been avoided.

He could also have made ‘essential’ journeys to Washington and the European capitals to calm frayed regulatory nerves.

The responses by AZ to successive problems with big pharma enforcers have been slow and imprecise, undermining confidence when it could have been shored up.

The Astra board has been discomforted by this and the share price tumbled from a peak of 9320p in July last year to 7243p in latest trading. 

Directors recognise that is no time to question the future of Soriot who has delivered a vaccine from a standing start and brought to fruition an impressive suite of cancer fighting immunology compounds.

At the upcoming public shareholders meeting on April 30 and the AGM scheduled for May 11, approval will be sought for an extension to chairman Leif Johansson’s nine-year stretch even though it goes beyond the tenure recommended by governance rules. 

Continuity is seen as critical at this juncture. Soriot’s £15.4million 2020 pay package is unlikely to cause too much of a ripple given his efforts in the pandemic.

But as the first 700,000 AZ doses of vaccine arrive Down Under, it is critical for his own and the company’s reputation that Soriot climbs aboard a flight in the opposite direction.

Mine field

The passions aroused by king coal as the world speeds towards clean energy have been symbolised by planning delays to a new deep mine in Cumbria.

Global mining groups have come up with an answer. Split out or sell off the coal mines, then it becomes someone else’s problem. 

Anglo American is seeking to underline its environmental credentials by de-merging its South African thermal coal deposits, renaming them Thungela, and listing on Johannesburg and London. 

That may pep up Anglo’s green credentials but does nothing to rid the world of coal.

Glencore’s departing boss Ivan Glasenberg has a different solution. His firm is to deplete and close coal mines around the world. That is an ethical approach with owners taking responsibility for clean-up.

Mutual respect

The Co-op is declining to pay back £66million of government assistance through business rates relief in spite of rumblings among members. 

It follows the lead of partner-owned John Lewis-Waitrose. Pandemic sacrifice would be better but mutuals do find it harder to raise capital and win access to borrowing than quoted rivals. 

That’s fine as long as executives don’t pay themselves fat bonuses at taxpayer expense.