Pfizer chief Bourla raises 'likely' need for annual COVID shots, teeing up vaccine sales for years to come

Pfizer was first to market in the U.S. with its BioNTech-partnered COVID-19 vaccine, and by and large, it's avoided the safety and supply concerns plaguing some of its pandemic peers. Now, to hear CEO Albert Bourla tell it, it's increasingly likely the 2021 revenue boon will continue for years to come.

Patients will "likely" need a third dose of Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine as the shot's protection wanes, CEO Albert Bourla said in a recent interview with CVS Health Live. And after receiving a third shot, people should expect re-vaccination every year, he said. 

That could spell extra sales for Pfizer in the short term, and turn its mRNA-based vaccine Comirnaty into a revenue spring for years to come. 

Certain shots, like the polio vaccine or Pfizer's own pneumococcal vaccine Prevnar, offer lasting protection at a single dose. Then there are "vaccines like flu that you need every year," Bourla said. "The COVID virus looks more like the influenza virus than the poliovirus."

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The company recently turned out data showing its BioNTech-partnered mRNA vaccine was 91.3% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 for up to six months in patients who'd received their second dose. In another big win for the partners, Comirnaty proved effective against the notoriously tough-to-tackle variant that first emerged in South Africa.

Protection remains high during that half-year stretch, but it does "go down by time," Bourla said during the interview. “There will be a need, based on this data, for re-vaccinations," he said, noting that the exact timing of those boosters, and how frequently they might need to occur, remains unclear. 

“There will be likely a need for a third dose somewhere between six and 12 months, and then from there, there will be an annual re-vaccination," he said.

Meanwhile, variants will determine the exact role those boosters play. “It is extremely important to suppress the pool of people that can be susceptible to the virus,” Bourla said. 

RELATED: Pfizer partner BioNTech, riding high on COVID-19 vaccine launch, eyes $11.5B in revenue this year

Evaluate in late January forecasted some $6.05 billion in Comirnaty sales for 2021. The team predicted that number would tick down to $2.08 billion in 2022 and $1.08 billion by 2025—but with the possibility of yearly inoculations on the horizon, Pfizer may be looking at strong sales beyond 2021's gung-ho vaccination push. 

Pfizer isn't being shy about its vaccine profit margins once the pandemic has subsided, either. The company sees “significant opportunity” for its COVID-19 vaccine once the market moves from a “pandemic situation to an endemic situation," Frank D’Amelio, chief financial officer at Pfizer, said during a recent virtual investor conference. 

Once that happens, “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,” he said at the time.

Meanwhile, Pfizer and its mRNA rival Moderna are getting a boost as rival shots from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca flag on safety concerns and supply constraints, Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Louise Chen wrote to clients on Wednesday. 

With alternative mRNA-based vaccines readily on-tap, there's been less pressure to find an immediate fix to the J&J predicament. “We think recent developments show that safety concerns around adenovirus vaccines come at the benefit of mRNA vaccines," Chen wrote.