Moderna's rumored $50-plus price on COVID-19 vaccine draws ire as company touts new animal data

The average consumer desperate to return to some sort of normalcy may not be thinking about how much an effective COVID-19 vaccine is going to cost, but investors in Moderna and other front-runners in this race—and their critics—most definitely are. Now, Moderna is in the spotlight, thanks to fresh rumors about its pricing plans.

Moderna is talking to governments about pricing its COVID-19 vaccine between $50 and $60 per course in the U.S. and other high-income countries, the Financial Times reported, citing anonymous sources. If the report proves true, that would put the cost of Moderna’s vaccine, mRNA-1273, at $25 to $30 per shot, well above the price of the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. They struck a deal with the U.S. government for a dose price of $19.50 last week.

A spokesperson for Moderna declined to comment on the company’s pricing plans, citing in an email to Fierce Pharma the confidentiality of “discussions with a number of governments and governmental entities about potential supply of mRNA-1273.”

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Moderna may not have confirmed the price of mRNA-1273, but that didn’t stop one federal lawmaker from lashing out at the company, which has so far received $955 million in government funding to develop the vaccine.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, told Barron’s that if the report is true “it will represent yet another example of why we must require reasonable pricing of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments that have been developed by taxpayers.” Schakowsky blasted Moderna for “already contemplating how to turn [its] federal funding into sky-high profits.”

The many companies racing to develop COVID-19 vaccines have pursued different strategies for striking the right balance between alleviating a dire public health need and making a profit. Johnson & Johnson told Fierce Pharma it was taking a “not-for-profit” approach to developing its vaccine, and a company executive said during a federal hearing a week ago that it would set just one price for it, rather than adjusting the price based on each country’s ability to pay.

AstraZeneca has also made a no-profit pledge, while Novavax has said that if it makes a return on COVID-19 vaccination it would “an appropriate” one. Novavax told Fierce Pharma that its pricing strategy would be “thoughtful” and aimed at providing "equitable access throughout the globe."

RELATED: Where do COVID-19 vaccine players stand on pricing? So far, it's no profit, slight profit or undecided

Pfizer expanded on its COVID-19 pricing plans during its second-quarter earnings call Tuesday. Angela Hwang, president of the biopharmaceuticals unit, said there would be two phases of pricing. The first, the “pandemic” phase, will last until late 2021 or early 2022, “where high volumes of doses will need to be provided for mass vaccinations,” and the price will be designed “for broad access,” she said.

The second will be the “seasonal” phase, “where we anticipate that we will have to have continued vaccination for a number of years,” Hwang said. During that time, Pfizer expects “to return to more regular supply channels and a more value-based pricing approach.”

COVID-19 vaccine pricing is so uncertain, however, that SVB Leerink analysts did not include its impact in their Pfizer sales or earnings guidance. After all, as they warned in a note to investors, the company’s pricing strategy could change depending on the competition, “which we expect to be very intense beyond 2021,” the analysts wrote.

Meanwhile, Moderna drew some attention away from the pricing debate Tuesday afternoon with news of positive data from a trial of its vaccine in nonhuman primates. The study showed that when the animals were infected with COVID-19 four weeks after receiving the second of two doses of the vaccine, the virus did not replicate in their lungs.

The vaccine also produced a “protective immune response” similar to that seen in people who participated in Moderna’s phase 1 clinical trial, leaving the company “cautiously optimistic that mRNA-1273 will be able to prevent COVID-19 disease,” said Moderna President Stephen Hoge, M.D., in a statement.

Moderna kicked off its phase 3 trial of mRNA-1273 Monday with plans to enroll 30,000 Americans in the placebo-controlled study. Given that the vaccine, if approved, would be Moderna’s first product, the company’s pricing plans will likely remain a topic of interest on Wall Street. So investors should expect to hear more chatter on the topic Aug. 5, when the company releases its second-quarter earnings report.