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COVID vaccines are set to be among the most lucrative pharmaceutical products ever

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The COVID-19 vaccines are making the pharmaceutical industry a lot of money. And while there are still millions more people to vaccinate and boost around the world, it's not clear exactly how long the boom will last. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin reports.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: This year, Pfizer expects to bring in $36 billion from worldwide sales of its COVID-19 vaccine. That would shatter the previous record in annual sales for a single pharmaceutical product - about $20 billion for the anti-inflammatory drug Humira - and make the Pfizer vaccine the bestselling pharmaceutical product ever. Moderna will deliver fewer doses but is still expecting up to $18 billion in sales for the year for its COVID-19 vaccine. But the long-term measure of financial success for the companies' mRNA vaccines isn't so simple. Here's Richard Evans of SSR Health, an investment research firm.

RICHARD EVANS: The benchmark, Humira, has been, you know, churning out tens of billions of dollars a year for multiple years on end. And it's not entirely clear that the mRNA vaccines will do that.

LUPKIN: Evans says that just because Pfizer and Moderna are selling billions of doses now doesn't mean that will last forever. The vaccines could work so well they eliminate the need for further boosters, though it's also possible COVID shots could become routine, like flu shots. Still, Evans says the uncertainty puts a premium on maximizing sales now.

EVANS: Any vaccine manufacturer is going to realize that there's a risk that they're going to have a very short lifecycle. And so, you know, obviously making more money upfront would be preferred to the manufacturer.

LUPKIN: That's because of what companies are spending on manufacturing staff and equipment that for the mRNA vaccines, is specialized and may not be usable for other products. But figuring out exact costs is tricky.

EVANS: Unfortunately, there are just so many moving parts that it's almost impossible - probably impossible - to unravel.

LUPKIN: Moderna got a lot of government funding, offsetting costs and minimizing risks. But the COVID-19 vaccine is its only product on the market. Pfizer, on the other hand, didn't accept early government investment and took on a lot of those upfront costs itself. But it has dozens of other products in its portfolio that it makes and will continue to make once the pandemic ends. In the meantime, the company just inked a more than $5 billion deal with the Biden administration for its COVID-19 pill.

Sydney Lupkin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.