The head of Brigham and Women’s Hospital sold nearly $2 million worth of Moderna stock in May, just as the institution she led was preparing cost-cutting due to COVID-19, bringing her total earnings from the biotech company to $8.5 million this year.
The Globe reported last week that Dr. Elizabeth Nabel sold 73,975 Moderna shares worth $6.5 million on July 15, after the company’s stock nearly quadrupled this year on news of early success with its experimental COVID-19 vaccine. Nabel resigned from the Cambridge biotech’s board of directors Thursday amid concerns that her position there might conflict with the hospital’s role in a large study of the vaccine.
But a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows that on May 12 Nabel also sold 30,000 shares of Moderna stock worth $1.98 million.
The sales have infuriated a number of Brigham and Women’s employees, who point out that Nabel and other hospital administrators imposed budget cuts as she was benefiting from the stock sales. In a June 17 letter e-mailed to the employees, Nabel said the hospital’s parent company, Mass General Brigham, was cutting or freezing the salaries of employees and suspending contributions to their retirement benefits because of the “stark financial reality” confronting the hospital as a result of the pandemic.
“I know we will endure and emerge stronger and better than ever,” Nabel wrote Brigham employees.
On Tuesday, John Fish, the chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees and chief executive of the Suffolk construction company, declined to comment on whether Nabel should have sold millions of dollars in stock around the same time the hospital was cutting employees’ compensation. A spokesman for Dr. Anne Klibanski, chief executive of Brigham’s parent company Mass General Brigham, and a spokeswoman for Brigham and Women’s also declined to address the timing of the stock sales.
After Nabel announced her resignation from the Moderna board on Thursday, the Globe asked whether she intended to keep the $6.5 million from her July 15 stock sale. Erin McDonough, the hospital spokeswoman, said, “Dr. Nabel is considering a number of options, including charitable contributions.”
As of Tuesday, however, Nabel appeared to still be considering what to do with the money. “Dr. Nabel will make a charitable contribution to a non-profit charity of her choice” when she sells the rest of her investments in Moderna, the Brigham spokeswoman said in a statement.
Nabel had served on Moderna’s board since 2015. She still has 109,237 options to buy Moderna stock at a predetermined price, according the hospital. She received $425,000 in stock option awards from Moderna last year, as well as $62,500 in payment, according to an SEC filing.
Moderna’s share price has jumped this year amid widespread coverage of its effort to develop the first vaccine for COVID-19.
“The Brigham board and Dr. Nabel have agreed that she will pursue a plan of divestiture of her financial interest in Moderna as soon as possible,” the hospital said in its statement Tuesday.
Under SEC rules, McDonough said, Nabel has to wait until the next “open trading window” before she can sell stock options she obtained as a Moderna board member.
As long as Nabel retains those remaining shares, she still has a potential conflict of interest, according to Sunita Sah, a professor of management studies at Cambridge University in England and Cornell University who is considered an expert on such conflicts.
Sah said Nabel’s actions have implications for other Brigham employees.
“The hospital president sets the tone on conflicts of interest in general,” she said.
Medical ethics experts said last week that it was worrisome that the head of the Harvard-affiliated teaching hospital had a major financial stake in the vaccine, particularly given that many people are already skeptical of vaccines. Recent public opinion polls show up to half of Americans would be reluctant to get a COVID-19 vaccine if one is approved. To give people another reason to doubt a vaccine could be dangerous, the experts said.
Fish said in a statement Tuesday that although Brigham trustees had approved Nabel’s position on Moderna’s board and concluded she followed all requirements, “we fully support Dr. Nabel’s decision to step down from the Moderna board and divest her financial interests.”
Nabel continues to serve on the board of directors of a multinational medical technology company, Medtronic, a position she has held since 2014. Last year Medtronic paid her more than $407,000 while the firm did business with her hospital, according to a database maintained by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
However, McDonough said Nabel’s actual compensation from Medtronic was $264,000. Nabel, she said, never saw the remaining $143,000, which paid for flights to Dublin, where Medtronic has its headquarters, lodging, and other expenses.
McDonough, the Brigham and Women’s spokeswoman, said Nabel’s involvement with Medtronic was governed by the Mass General Brigham Professional Institutional Conduct Committee, which requires she recuse herself from discussions about business between the firm and her hospital.
The Globe reported last year that as Brigham’s president, Nabel received about $2.6 million in total compensation in 2017.
This is not the the first time that Nabel’s multiple roles have raised concerns.
In 2016, a congressional committee report said she was part of a National Football League effort to “steer funding” for a landmark concussion study away from a group of respected brain researchers at Boston University who have helped to establish a link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, long-term brain damage.
The report found that the NFL “inappropriately attempted to influence” the NIH’s grant selection process through Nabel, who was serving as the league’s chief health and medical adviser. Nabel knows NIH well, having directed its National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute from 2005 to 2009. When the report was issued, she said she “had no intention of influencing” the NIH process. The agency stuck with its decision to award the grant to BU researchers, but ended up using internal funds, not NFL money, to pay for it.
Nabel, a cardiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, stopped working as the health adviser to the NFL in 2017, according to Brigham’s spokeswoman.
Dr. Lindsey Baden, an infectious diseases specialist, is running the vaccine trial at the hospital and serves as one of three co-principal investigators for the study nationwide. Before Nabel resigned, he told the Globe she would play no role in the trial, which is expected to start soon at the hospital. He said he planned to report the results to Moderna, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases ― which helped develop the experimental vaccine ― and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
Nabel’s recent sales of Moderna stock weren’t the first by company insiders to draw public attention.
Several Moderna executives and board members have sold millions of dollars worth of stock, including chief executive officer Stephane Bancel and chief medical officer Tal Zaks. Some trades were preprogrammed, company officials have said. But critics have questioned whether the insiders may have gained an unfair trading advantage by timing transactions with the release of market-moving data on the experimental vaccine’s progress.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org