Declining demand for COVID-19 boosters puts price hikes on the table – National

With most Americans delaying or skipping new COVID-19 booster injections, analysts and investors are now predicting that far fewer will be given each year, pushing the number of injections well below annual flu vaccinations.

Because fewer injections are needed, vaccine makers including Pfizer Inc., partner BioNTech, rival Moderna Inc. and Novavax Inc. prices must increase as much as three times current levels if they hope to meet Wall Street’s revenue projections for the injections for 2023 and beyond, several analysts said.

Last year, many on Wall Street estimated that the number of COVID-19 injections would be in line with the annual flu vaccine, which is the vaccine market leader with more than 160 million injections per year in the United States and 600 million injections worldwide.

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Now, the slowing pace of early COVID revaccination campaigns — particularly in the key US market — is changing that view. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of American adults do not plan to get a COVID vaccine anytime soon. Analysts expect the US market to be only a third the size of the flu.

“Having people saying the pandemic is over doesn’t motivate people to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology at New York’s hospital system, Northwell Health.

Click to play video: 'Flu season makes big comeback from COVID era'

Flu season makes big comeback from COVID era

He added that cases of COVID infection in those who have been vaccinated have made many question the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Healthcare investor Bijan Salehizadeh of Navimed Capital previously thought demand would likely mirror that of the flu, but now believes it will be much smaller without significant evidence that updated injections are better.

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“The average person won’t jump to get it” with no signs of improved efficacy, he said.

In the first six weeks of the rollout, approximately 14.8 million people have received the updated COVID-19 booster shots targeting the original coronavirus strain and the Omicron strain. In the first six weeks of the 2021 vaccination campaign, more than 22 million people received their third injection, although only elderly and immunocompromised people were eligible at that time.

Booster uptake in the European Union didn’t increase as hoped this year, after new, updated shots targeting Omicron were released, staying in the range of 1 million to 1.4 million doses per week.

Wall Street analysts and investors agreed that vaccine sales could improve if the companies provide evidence that new boosters protect people from mild illness; if they develop pan-coronavirus vaccines; or if the injections are combined as a single flu vaccine injection. A new wave of infections could also boost demand.

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For 2023, analysts estimate, on average, that Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax could generate revenues of $16.3 billion, $7.9 billion and $2.8 billion, respectively, from their COVID-19 vaccines, according to Refinitiv data.

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Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna declined to discuss their outlook for COVID-related sales.

John Trizzino, Novavax’s chief commercial officer, said that while vaccine fatigue and the belief that the pandemic is over is currently bringing demand down, the drugmaker expects the COVID market to eventually be at least as big as flu. He said increased infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths will push people to get boosters.

“Unfortunately, the virus is doing that for us,” Trizzino said.

Moderna has also suggested several times that it believes the flu is a good comparison, both in the United States and worldwide.

Companies could offset some of the weaker demand with price increases. Moderna has said it could aim to charge as much as $100 per dose for shots that originally cost around $16.50.

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SVB Leerink analyst Daina Graybosch is skeptical that the companies can raise prices so high.

But Jefferies’ Michael Yee said it’s likely that private health insurers and U.S. government health plans will spend up to three times more than the current price of about $30 to avoid the significant costs of hospitalizations or prolonged COVID. That would mean annual revenues of $3 to $5 billion for a company like Moderna in the long run, he added.

Investors have already started souring the promise of the COVID vaccine market, particularly for Moderna, BioNTech and Novavax, three fledgling companies that rely on the shots to generate virtually all of their profits. Shares of all three companies have fallen by at least two-thirds in the past year. Pfizer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, has fallen by about a third.

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