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When Lifesaving Vaccines Become Profit Machines for Drugmakers

For middle-income countries, protection from the virus can cost governments dearly.

People in Singapore wait in line to register for a dose of Sinovac’s Covid vaccine on June 24.

People in Singapore wait in line to register for a dose of Sinovac’s Covid vaccine on June 24.

Photographer: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

As Covid-19 spread last year, rich countries spent billions of dollars to speed development of vaccines and purchase early supplies. Now, 18 months into the crisis, vaccines are saving lives and helping to avert further economic losses, at least in the nations that can afford them. Yet, as drug companies ride a wave of support following years of criticism over high prices, they face a tricky question: How much should they charge governments desperate to protect their populations from a disease that has killed about 4 million people, crippled economies, and created turmoil across the globe?

The answer, in many cases, is plenty. Covid vaccines are emerging as a $100 billion-plus business in 2021. U.S. drugmakers Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. are poised to benefit the most, along with China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and Sinopharm Group Co. All told, governments and nonprofits have invested at least $10 billion into vaccines from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca Plc, Pfizer’s German partner BioNTech SE, and others, researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science and other institutions estimated in a February report. Including advance purchase deals that ensure a market for companies’ products, public investment in Covid vaccines climbs to more than $50 billion, the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva found.