Moderna weighs private market debut for COVID shot as federal funding flounders

As Congress gridlocks on funding for new COVID-19 therapies and vaccines, mRNA bigwig Moderna is setting its sights on the endemic market for its wildly successful shot, Spikevax, the biotech’s CEO has said.

“[W]hat is not clear today is, will the U.S. become a private market, which is the case for all other medicines we have access to,” Stéphane Bancel speculated in an interview with Yahoo Finance during Moderna’s 3rd annual Vaccines Day on Thursday.

The U.S. government says funding for COVID vaccines and therapeutics is waning, which could spell trouble for Moderna’s megablockbuster shot sales. In fact, Moderna's $21 billion in advanced purchase agreements for this year includes no contribution from the U.S., Bancel pointed out. Still, the feds could step in yet to purchase shots for the public, the CEO suggested.

“As we enter a new moment in the pandemic, Congress has not provided us with the funding we need to continue the COVID-19 response and minimize the pandemic’s impact to the nation and our economy,” the White House said in a fact sheet published earlier this month.

Sans funding, the U.S. won’t have enough extra boosters or variant-specific vaccines for all Americans if they are needed, the White House added.

Meanwhile, not content to rest on its laurels, Moderna is “getting ready for a private market situation,” the CEO said.

“We were always planning this would happen, so the commercial team is spending a lot of time with [pharmacy benefit managers] and pharmacy chains, assuming there’s no funding,” Bancel added, as quoted by Endpoints News.

Since the pandemic’s start, the cost of Moderna’s vaccine has been low in the U.S. compared to places like Europe and Japan, Bancel noted. That’s because the company was reimbursing the U.S. government for the grant it got to bankroll its clinical study, the CEO explained.

In an endemic setting, meanwhile, Bancel figures the price of Moderna’s vaccine would be “higher than it’s been over the past two years," the CEO told Yahoo. 

Whether Moderna’s vaccine rolls out through public or private channels in the U.S., the company is making sure it’s ready to meet demand this fall, Bancel pointed out.

Moderna boasts manufacturing capacity now that it didn’t have back at the start of the pandemic, Bancel told Yahoo. When its shot was authorized in December 2020, the biotech had just 20 million doses total to ship, he added. The company now touts capacity to produce between 2 billion to 3 billion doses a year.

Bancel’s comments coincided with the third iteration of Moderna’s annual Vaccines Day, during which the company trumpeted its mRNA pipeline progress, dialed up its COVID shot sales forecast and laid out new details on its mRNA access program.

Ahead of Thursday’s program, Moderna Tuesday said it was adding two more vaccine hopefuls to its roster: a combination respiratory candidate and a shot targeting all four endemic human coronaviruses responsible for the common cold.

For its part, Moderna’s chief vaccine rival Pfizer has also speculated on the private market for pandemic drugs and vaccines. In addition, Pfizer's CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., has made frequent plugs for the necessity of another booster dose later this year.

Last March, Pfizer’s chief financial officer Frank D’Amelio highlighted a “significant opportunity” for the company’s BioNTech-partnered mRNA shot Comirnaty once the market had shifted from a “pandemic situation to an endemic” one.

Once “normal market forces” eventually kick in, “factors like efficacy, booster ability, clinical utility will basically become very important, and we view that as, quite frankly, a significant opportunity for our vaccine from a demand perspective, from a pricing perspective, given the clinical profile of our vaccine,’ the CFO said at the time.

In the meantime, Pfizer scientists figure it’s “unlikely that [SARS-CoV-2] will be fully eradicated in the foreseeable future,” Bourla said last month on a call with investors. He credited COVID’s longevity to its global spread and the ability to mutate often, making it tough for drugmakers to “stay ahead.”

Pfizer did not immediately respond to Fierce Pharma's request for an update on its private market plans for Comirnaty. 

Pfizer’s shot generated a whopping $37 billion last year, and the company expects the vaccine to reel in $32 billion more in 2022 sales. Moderna, for its part, reaped $17.7 billion in Spikevax sales for 2021. For 2022, the biotech has already locked up advanced purchase agreements for its shot worth $21 billion.