Profiteering off a Covid vaccine

SUMMARY: Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca publicly committed to not profiting off their products during the pandemic; Pfizer and Moderna made no such pledge and are already planning ways to make more money from their Covid vaccines.

According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, we’ll likely need to get a COVID vaccine booster annually—and it may be part of a yearly medical ritual, he recently told Forbes. “You might end up with a thing like the flu where every year, every two years, you need a boost,” Bancel told Forbes.

In addition in drug companies have rebuffed entreaties to face the emergency by sharing their proprietary technology more freely with companies in developing nations. They cite the rapid development of new vaccines as evidence that the drug industry’s traditional business model, based on exclusive patents and know-how, is working. The companies are lobbying the Biden administration and other members of the World Trade Organization against any erosion of their monopolies on individual coronavirus vaccines that are worth billions of dollars in annual sales.

Pharmaceutical officials, speaking at recent conferences and on calls with investors, say they expect the virus will linger, morphing from a pandemic into a perennial endemic. And as Covid-19 mutations continue to spread and booster shots may be required on a regular basis, leaders from the three companies are enthusiastic about cashing in. Moderna and Pfizer are already salivating about future sales while J&J and Astra Zeneca have taken the step of saying “we’re not going to profit from these vaccines”.

“As this shifts from pandemic to endemic, we think there’s an opportunity here for us,” said Frank D’Amelio, the chief financial officer for Pfizer, at a conference. Additional factors, such as the need for booster shots, present “a significant opportunity for our vaccine from a demand perspective, from a pricing perspective, given the clinical profile of our vaccine.”

The vaccines are already poised to be some of the most lucrative drugs of all time. The companies are expecting to bring in billions in profit this year alone, and all the major drugmakers with approved coronavirus vaccines received investments and backorders from government agencies.

The U.S. government has fully financed the research and development of several coronavirus vaccines, including those produced by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to the tune of over $2 billion. The U.S. has also provided nearly $2 billion in payments to secure doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, which was developed in partnership with BioNTech, a company that received nearly $500 million in development assistance from the German government.


If you ask, “what’s wrong with that” then you’re part of the problem. The executives at Moderna have all seen their personal fortunes climb as the stock price has exploded. Pfizer’s CEO is set to make millions in compensation, and yet J&J and Astra Zeneca understand that it may be morally wrong to make profits off a pandemic that has killed so many people.

Every American should be grateful for the innovative free enterprise system that made the vaccines but the government helped. Once again we are reminded that investors are the primary customer of some pharma companies, not patients. J&J and AZ see the moral compass; Pfizer and Moderna’s compass points to the bank.