Some companies will make big money off their COVID-19 vaccines — but not as much as they could

While the development of a COVID-19 vaccine could generate billions of dollars for some pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, concerns over accusations of exploiting the pandemic will likely temper profits, experts suggest.

Time for pharmaceutical companies to focus on 'brand equity', expert says

While the development of a COVID-19 vaccine will likely generate billions of dollars, those profits may be tempered by companies' image concerns, experts suggest. (University of Maryland School of Medicine/The Associated Press)

While the development of a COVID-19 vaccine could generate billions of dollars for some pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, concerns over accusations of exploiting the pandemic will likely temper profits, experts suggest. 

"It doesn't really make sense to profit from this pandemic," said Tinglong Dai, associate professor of operations management and business analytics at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School in Baltimore.

"This is a perfect time for [pharmaceutical companies] to develop their brand equity, which will serve them well for longer -term profits. In the long run, what's really important for pharmaceutical manufacturers is in brand equity. So people trust Pfizer, for example."

Vamil Divan, a senior biopharmaceuticals research analyst with Mizuho Securities, said he believes these companies are very aware of the need to be responsible for their pricing and not to overcharge.

"I think they think it's appropriate to get back the investment they made. But I imagine they are being reasonable about it," he said.

The giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the upstart biotech firm Moderna, which both have announced test results showing their coronavirus vaccine candidate is 95 per cent effective, have indicated they will make some profit from their ventures.

Some companies say they won't profit during pandemic

However, some other companies, including Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, have pledged they will not profit from their vaccine, although they have suggested this would be limited to the time during the pandemic. 

Stacie Dusetzina, an associate professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University, said for an industry that has not been popular with the public, this is an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to get back in their good favour, at least to some degree. 

"I think they have a lot going for them if they don't mess it up," she said.

Still, Dusetzina noted, "I'm sure everyone will make quite a lot of money."

Pfizer could generate billions of dollars in sales of their vaccine, at least in the short-term. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

Just how much money is difficult to determine. Michael Levesque, senior vice-president of Moody's Investors Service, said there's very limited data that would allow for a precise estimate.

"We do believe that the Pfizer vaccine will generate profits for Pfizer in 2021,  but we haven't made an explicit estimate of that profit," he said.

What is known is that Pfizer, along with its COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing partner, BioNTech, will be selling the vaccine at $19.50, that two doses are needed and that it will be able to provide 1.3 billion shots worldwide by 2021. 

Using that data, Cinney Zhang, an equity research analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, calculated that in 2021, Pfizer and BioNTech could expect $24 billion of revenues. That would equate to  $7 billion in profit for each company.

"This could be a windfall," she said. 

Meanwhile Moderna, which has said it will charge somewhere between $25 and $37 per dose, could add almost $30 billion to its revenues, estimated market analyst Peter Cohan, writing in Forbes.

Game changer for smaller companies

Certainly for a smaller company like Moderna, the vaccine could be a game changer, said Divan. And while Pfizer is looking at some big revenue numbers,"it doesn't really change the trajectory" of the company.

Pfizer generates about $50 billion a year in revenue, with up to around $16 billion in profits, said Damien Conover, director of health-care equity research and equity strategy for the financial services company Morningstar.

The COVID-19 vaccine, he said, will likely mean a "pretty substantial windfall" for Pfizer. Some of the vaccines, even at very low price points, will generate billions of dollars, he said.

But the gross margins on those dollars are going to be much lower than a typical gross margin for a big pharmaceutical firm, he said.

"I would probably frame it: Some good profits for about one year for some firms."

Conover also noted that post-2021, the COVID-19 vaccine market could become very competitive.

"Pfizer and Moderna, I think, would have a hard time getting people to buy their vaccine at the $40 that they're going to be charging initially. So I think even those more modest profit levels will come down."

Profits for Pfizer, for example, could be affected by unforeseen expenses, Zhang said. Their vaccine needs to be stored at about –75 C, meaning escalating refrigeration costs could impact their bottom line, she said.

Latecomers into the market

Profits will also obviously depend on whether the vaccine continues to be needed, which could also impact those vaccine manufacturers coming late to the market.

Some companies, including Johnson & Johnson, have pledged they will not profit from their vaccine for the course of the pandemic.  (Zeba Siddiqui/Reuters)

"It's certainly possible that some of these reach the market too late to turn into meaningful opportunities, especially if the first [companies] are very successful and are taken broadly across the population," Levesque said.

"If  there is no need for revaccination, that scenario is one where some of the players who come out a bit later may not have much of a market opportunity."

However, if their vaccines prove more effective, easier to distribute and revaccinations are needed, there may be opportunity for others, he said.

"Not to mention if any of the leading players see any sort of manufacturing or safety problems emerge down the road," he said.

"So it's too early really to estimate ultimately who's the most successful or to feel any company is going to be totally excluded. It's still early days for anybody involved."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from the Associated Press