Covid-19 pharma sales: Who came out on top?

Pfizer saw massive profits from its Covid-19 treatments.
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Francis Scialabba

4 min read

Pharmaceutical companies were on the clock in early 2020, racing to develop potential vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. And they didn’t scrimp: Pharma and the US government invested at least $30 billion to find a vaccine.

Some investments were extremely successful, like the vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. It raked in $36.8 billion in 2021 and became the top-selling pharmaceutical product ever in one year.

But not every company saw results like Pfizer’s. Johnson & Johnson, for example, brought in just 6.5% of the amount Pfizer made in Covid vaccine sales in 2021.

By the end of 2022, sales of Covid vaccines and treatments fell steeply across the board. Analysts told Healthcare Brew they believe Covid-related revenues have hit a ceiling and will only continue to decline in 2023.

Winners and losers

Pfizer was the clear winner in terms of Covid vaccine profits. In 2021, the company made $36.8 billion from its vaccine, while Moderna made $17.7 billion.

Although neither company has reported 2022 calendar year results yet, Moderna slashed its 2022 annual vaccine sales projection to $18 billion–$19 billion, down from $21 billion, as of Q3 2022. The company also reported a 35% decline in vaccine sales compared to the prior year.

In contrast, Pfizer reported Q3 sales of $4.4 billion, which prompted the company to increase its annual vaccine sales projection to $34 billion—a $2 billion increase on its original projection for the period.

Johnson & Johnson fell far short of both Pfizer and Moderna, reporting just $2.39 billion in vaccine sales in 2021 and nearly $1.5 billion in 2022 through Q3.

For Covid drugs, Pfizer came out on top again, raking in $17 billion for its oral antiviral drug Paxlovid through Q3 of 2022. Pfizer executives said they expect total 2022 sales to be about $22 billion.

Merck reported a much more modest $4.8 billion in sales from its Covid oral antiviral through Q3. Gilead’s injectable remdesivir-based Covid antiviral treatment brought in just $2.9 billion over that same period.

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Covid vaccine and drug sales have probably already peaked, according to Damien Conover, director of healthcare equity research at investment research firm Morningstar.

He told Healthcare Brew there will probably be “year over year declines until around 2024,” when he expects sales to stabilize.

Looking ahead

As the pandemic continues to evolve and patient needs change, pharma companies will have to adjust if they want to continue profiting from their vaccines and treatments.

Kristen Nichols, a senior content management consultant for the clinical effectiveness business at Wolters Kluwer, a Dutch information services firm, said pharma companies will likely have to shift their focus from inpatient to outpatient Covid treatments.

On the vaccine front, Moderna and Pfizer are both considering a price increase for their Covid shots, as the US government moves the vaccines to the private market this year.

CEO Stéphane Bancel told the Wall Street Journal that Moderna aims to raise the price of its vaccine to $110–$130, up from about $26 per dose. Angela Lukin, global primary care and US president at Pfizer, also told the WSJ that her company expects to price its vaccine in the same range, up from about $30 per dose.

Covid investments paid off

Though sales are declining and not every company saw massive profits like Pfizer, Arda Ural, a health sciences and wellness analyst at EY, said that the massive investment in Covid treatments has paid off for the most part.

“The companies who took major risk to prioritize their portfolios to focus on Covid treatments certainly reap the benefits of their risk-reward equation,” Ural said. “Not everybody, of course, was successful, but I would say the majority of the companies were, which is, again, a phenomenal testimony to the industry’s resiliency.”

Michael Schroeder contributed to this report.

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.