Senators blast Pfizer's proposed COVID vaccine price hike as 'profiteering'

With the era of free COVID-19 vaccines winding down in the U.S., lawmakers are pressing Pfizer for a fair Comirnaty price tag and singling out the pharma giant for its “unseemly profiteering.”

On the company’s coronavirus antiviral Paxlovid, however, the government has agreed to foot the bill for a few months more.

Early this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Vermont Sen.-elect Peter Welch blasted (PDF) Pfizer’s purported Comirnaty pricing scheme—which could see the company charge between $110 and $130 per vaccine dose on the private market—as “pure and deadly greed.”

To date, more than 650 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S., with over 80% of the total population having received at least one shot, Warren and Welch explained. But that “public health achievement” is “now at risk” thanks to Pfizer’s greed, they warned.

“We urge you to back off from your proposed price increases and ensure COVID-19 vaccines are reasonably priced and accessible to people across the United States,” the lawmakers said.

If Pfizer moves forward with the 400% markup of its BioNTech-partnered shot, as the company suggested it might during a recent investor event, it will be putting the lives of “many” uninsured Americans at risk, the lawmakers wrote in a letter addressed to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D.

“Even worse,” in Warren and Welch’s estimation, is the potential for Pfizer’s price hike to “pave the way” for other vaccine makers like Moderna and Novavax to do the same.

Pfizer did not immediately respond to Fierce Pharma's request for comment on the matter.

The lawmakers pointed out that Pfizer’s planned price bump would come on top of tens of billions of dollars in pandemic revenue the company has generated over the last two years.

Just in 2022’s third quarter—amid an uptake slump for Pfizer and BioNTech’s omicron-tweaked booster shot—Comirnaty brought home $4.4 billion in sales, including $2.9 billion in the U.S. Those results inspired Pfizer to tack another $2 billion onto its vaccine revenue projection for the year, which now stands at $34 billion.

In 2021, meanwhile, the vaccine snared a staggering $37 billion in sales.

Overall, Pfizer’s proposed price increases could generate an additional $2.5 billion to $3 billion in yearly revenue, “marking yet another massive corporate payday from the ongoing pandemic,” Warren and Welch wrote.

Pfizer does deserve credit for picking up the torch on Comirnaty’s production and development, the lawmakers said. But so too does the U.S. government, which provided Pfizer with technology developed from federally funded research as well as a “‘significant incentive’” from the Trump-era vaccine project Operation Warp Speed.

The lawmakers acknowledged that Pfizer has indicated its Patient Assistance Programs could help uninsured and underinsured people afford the COVID shot, but it remains “unclear how these will work or whether they will actually close the cost gap for the uninsured Americans who cannot afford the lifesaving vaccine.”

Warren and Welch also demanded answers from Pfizer on a number of questions related to revenue in 2022 and 2023, Patient Assistance Program projections, the amount Pfizer aims to charge Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Association for its shot in 2023, and more.

Pfizer first floated a potential $110 to $130 price tag for Comirnaty during an investor event in October, when the company suggested the price change would occur in 2023—likely in the first quarter—once the U.S. finishes its stockpile of COVID shots and pivots to a commercial model.

In a recent supply contract the U.S. signed with Pfizer and BioNTech in June of this year, the companies charged $30.48 per dose, which was an increase from a $24 price in July of 2021 and $19.50 per dose in July of 2020.

Pfizer’s commercial price projection, while high, isn’t incongruous with what’s charged for other vaccines in the U.S. CVS, for example, charges well over $100 on a range of vaccines for hepatitis ($145), meningitis ($179), shingles ($205) and HPV ($261).

Apart from the Comirnaty pricing blowup, Pfizer proved this week that the pandemic revenue engine still has some fuel left over from the feds after it revealed a nearly $2 billion deal for another 3.7 million Paxlovid courses for deliver in early 2023.

The Biden administration previously agreed to pay around $10.6 billion, or around $530 per treatment course, for the first 20 million Paxlovid courses ordered. It’s paying around the same amount per course under this latest order, too, Reuters reports.