As their companies pursued the path of COVID-19 vaccine development, the higher-ups increased their fortunes by selling their own stock.

Across 13 drug companies, including Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and, Novavax, the  companies’ directors and execs sold roughly $496 million of stock in 2020, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

By comparison, those same companies sold about $132 million in 2019, according to research firm Kaleidoscope’s insider transaction data.

While the activity, which includes more than 8.5 million shares sold last year vs. 4.7 million shares in 2019, certainly has drawn the interest of the Securities and Exchange Commission, finance experts are saying these sales frequently approach a gray area but aren’t enough for prosecution under insider-trading restrictions.

Among the high-level employees, trading plans can be set up for those with access to insider information to sell shares without risking charges of insider trading. These are called “10b5-1” that execute automatic sales when certain thresholds are reached. Some plans require a “cooling-off period” — extending the time between the establishment of the plan and the first trade. 

Late last year, some of these sales raised eyebrows and the SEC called for new restrictions on those trading plans, but it’s part of the new executive reality.

Corporations have been shifting more stock used as executive pay – thereby more closely associating success of the company, through stock performance, with pay.

“This is behavior that I would expect to see in most of these companies,” Ben Silverman, director of research at InsiderScore, told the Journal.

InsiderScore analyzes transactions by corporate insiders. 

Silverman said the vaccine companies’ trades could be seen as aggressive but weren’t unusual.

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