Will Covid-19 push Swiss multinationals forwards or back to business as usual?

Will Covid-19 create a new path for responsible business? Keystone / Ian Langsdon

Our analysis of what the biggest global companies in Switzerland are up to. This week: responsible business initiative back on the table, Lonza talks about vaccine production, and Kolmar under fire.

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The economy is getting back on solid footing here in Switzerland, giving many companies the nostalgic impulse to return to their pre-pandemic business ways. But is backwards what the people really want?

This content was published on May 29, 2020 - 07:30

The Responsible Business Initiative is headed back to parliament in June for another last-ditch effort at a counter proposal. If a public survey released this week is any indication, parliament will be under more pressure to reach a compromise or find itself at the mercy of Swiss voters, some 78% of whom support the initiative, according to the latest survey. That’s up 11 percentage points from February.

This isn’t the only survey showing a more “woke” public. Market research firm Edelman called Covid-19 a “moment of reckoning” for business after its trust survey during the pandemic revealed that half of people believed business is doing poorly or failing to put people before profits.

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Another one of its surveys a month ago found that 71% of people will lose trust in a brand if it is putting profits first and people second. What’s going on here?

Renato Beck writes in the Wochenzeitung newspaper that “the coronavirus crisis has plunged us into fear; but it has also lifted us out of indifference.” It is indeed much harder to ignore problems in far-away countries when a single cough can bring supply chains to their knees. The crisis has also inspired empathy in the shared experience across borders.

A few months ago, it was all survival mode. But as countries turn the lights back on, countries face tough questions about the underlying issues that led some to suffer more than others and about whether the push for profits blinded us to basic public health needs. And above all, how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Could Covid-19 be the nudge campaigners for responsible business were hoping for?

How has the pandemic changed your views on responsible business? Drop me a message: jessica.davis@swissinfo.ch

In other news:

Zug-based oil trader Kolmar has come under fire for shady business deals in Libya. According to an NGO investigation released in March, Kolmar purchased oil from the war-torn country with the help of armed groups and a series of middlemen. The company denies involvement in any smuggling activities and said it did its due diligence. But TRIAL International says there were plenty of red flags in the dealings in the country.

If a company knowingly buys stolen raw materials from a country at war, it can be found guilty of complicity in pillaging, according to the NGO. A criminal complaint is now in the hands of the Swiss attorney general.

Lonza has been thrown into the spotlight over its partnership with US firm Moderna for its mRNA vaccine. As more governments try to stake claims on any eventual Covid-19 treatment or vaccine, questions have been swirling about whether Switzerland will have first dibs on anything produced by the more than 100-year-old company.

Interim CEO Albert Baehny sought to set the record straight, clarifying that Moderna owns the intellectual property. But questions about who will have access to the first doses of a vaccine aren’t going away soon.

Novartis is re-entering the vaccine business after divesting the division in 2015. The venture is a far cry from traditional vaccine development though. According to a Reuters report, the company’s gene therapy US subsidiary AveXis is applying some of the technology and manufacturing used for its spinal muscular atrophy therapy Zolgensma to the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

With Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, the company aims to insert genetic material that makes up the new coronavirus’s “spikes” into a so-called adeno-associated virus, before injecting it into humans to provoke an immune response against Covid-19. It’s still early but the technology is worth watching.

Thanks for reading.

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