Big Pharma vaccine profits – let’s take a closer look at this trope

The old myth of the huge Big Pharma vaccine profits – it’s the subject of so many memes, tropes, and outright lies from the anti-vaccine religion. These vaccine deniers, who not only lack knowledge of science but also of basic corporate finance, believe that every Big Pharma CEO relies on vaccines for their next bonus check, which they use to buy their new Ferrari to show off to imaginary vaccine-injured children.

I am not naive – public corporations have an obligation to their shareholders and employees to maximize profits. That’s capitalism, I suppose.

But where this trope goes off the rails is when you realize that vaccine profits would be eclipsed by medical industry profits if Big Pharma simply stopped producing vaccines. It’s ironic that the anti-vaxxers claim that Big Pharma’s greed gives us vaccines, but if they were truly greedy they’d be out of the vaccine business.

This article is not going to be as much science as I usually do (just read the recent article on natural immunity) – it’s going to focus on finance and accounting. Yes, I’m finance and accounting geek as much as I am a science aficionado. 

Myths about vaccine profits

The vaccine deniers pollute the internet with their screeds about the Big Pharma vaccine profits. You’ve probably seen memes about Dr. Paul Offit, one of the world’s leading experts on vaccines, where it’s claimed that Dr. Offit earns money from vaccine makers because he was involved in the development of the rotavirus vaccine – they claim that this makes him biased about vaccines. Since most scientists have deep-seated ethics and morals, and can’t be bought at any price, this claim has always been laughable.

The anti-vaxxers love using childish ad hominem personal attacks – I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the silly imprimatur,  “Dr. Paul Proffit,” in anti-vaccine articles, comments, and memes. Seriously, that’s how they are going to “prove” that vaccines are a Big Pharma conspiracy? Does a 3rd-grade playground taunt have any value in the discussion about vaccine profits? 

Of course, you can find whole threads of tedious commentary about Big Pharma vaccine profits on any typical anti-vaccine forum. One of the more illogical claims is that “maybe vax (sic) companies see vaccines as more of an investment? Break mostly even on what the vaxes cost to make and sell, but make a bank load of money on treating all the chronic problems they cause!”

This is the corollary to the old trope that Big Pharma makes more money on selling cancer “treatment” while hiding an amazing cancer “cure” in a secret vault in a cave under the Greenland ice sheet. Well, now that this ice sheet is melting as a result of human stupidity about climate change, I guess that secret will be out. 

This “making money from chronic problems” from vaccines would be a  business strategy that would incite hysterical laughter in any Big Pharma boardroom. The only “chronic problems” that would give Big Pharma big profits would be eliminating vaccines across the world. 

Remember, vaccines don’t cause chronic problems. They prevent it.

These rants from these anti-vaccine zealots betray not only their lack of any sophisticated scientific knowledge but also their lack of knowledge of business finance. To be honest, I found finance to be as complicated and challenging as immunology. 

Maybe their Dunning–Kruger cognitive bias, in which unskilled, and uneducated, individuals suffer from an illusory superiority of their knowledge and skills, causes them to overestimate their abilities in critical thinking abilities and knowledge of a field as much higher than average.

But I’m not a psychologist, nor do I play one on the internet. However, the anti-vaxxers like to pretend to be vaccine scientists on the internet. 

Maybe execs are hiding their vaccine profits in Bitcoin. Or not. Photo by Clifford Photography on Unsplash

Are vaccines really profitable?

It would be difficult for me to actually claim that vaccines are not highly profitable. They are an important source of both income and profit.

But here are some facts that might temper your expectations that vaccines are that valuable:

  • Just to give some perspective, the US Government Accounting Office estimated (pdf) that the worldwide revenues of the pharmaceutical industry would be around US$775 billion in 2015. A private consulting firm, EvaluatePharma, estimates (pdf) that those worldwide revenues might hit US$1.06 trillion in 2022. Yes, those are huge numbers, making the pharmaceutical industry one of the largest businesses in the world.
  • EvaluatePharma also estimates that the medical device business (which are non-pharmaceutical products that are used in medicine, everything from syringes to scalpels to diabetic supplies) will generate approximately US$405 billion in revenue, growing to US$585 billion in 2024.
  • Together, these two segments, pharmaceuticals and devices which I have called “Big Medical” in the past, is responsible for over US$1.2 trillion in revenue in 2017.
  • It is estimated that the total worldwide vaccine market is around US$40 billion. That’s a huge number, sure. But let’s be honest, it’s only 3.3% of the total medical market. In the parlance of corporate finance, that’s “rounding error.”

Let’s look at that US$24 billion in worldwide vaccine revenues more carefully. All of the numbers below are in billions of US dollars and were estimated based upon Vaccines: Expert Consult (page 41).

vaccine profits

So vaccines generate about US$17.5 billion in EBITDA, which is about 43.7% of revenue (see Note 1). Most non-vaccine pharmaceuticals would generate about US$11.1 billion in net profit from the same revenue or 46.3%. Thus, vaccines produce around 5% lower profits than do other pharmaceuticals.

This lower profit for vaccines is because non-vaccine pharmaceuticals have a lower cost of goods as a result of fewer returns due to spoilage and change in antigens (like from flu season to flu season). Regular pharmaceutical products rarely change from year to year, so something manufactured in 2018 can be sold in 2019 as long as it still has shelf life remaining. Moreover, distribution is a lot more expensive for vaccines, because they need to be shipped more carefully (which is much more expensive) to prevent spoilage.

Analysis of Big Pharma vaccine profits

Still, US$17.5 billion in EBITDA sounds like a boatload of cash, but let’s see what happens to that boatload of money.

  • Every drug, whether a new vaccine or new drug for erectile dysfunction, costs around US$2.8 billion from discovery to regulatory approval (although other analyses show a cost of US$3.8 to 11 billion) each to fully develop, depending on the drug and the market. But despite what some believe about Big Pharma, drug development is not a slam dunk. For example, for many drugs, only around 12% gain final approval from the FDA, so the vast majority of drugs that enter clinical trials end up as failures.
  • Since Big Pharma funds its own R&D, it has to pay for both its successes and its failures. The average pharmaceutical company spends about 17% of REVENUES (not profit) on R&D (pdf). So out of the US$40.0 billion in Big Pharma vaccine revenue, about US$6.8 billion is removed from the net profit for R&D expenses (which are not counted in the administrative expenses for this exercise) – so that US40.0 billion in vaccine revenues ends up being “only” US$2.2 billion in true profits.
  • One of the mistakes made by individuals with no experience in business finance involves two falsehoods. First, they assume that risk capital, the money to finance operations, including R&D, is free. And it is freely available. But it’s not. Second, they fail to understand that Big Pharma needs to finance future R&D operations from its own cash reserves (or borrow at high rates). So, Big Pharma not only has to pay for the R&D for the drugs that are now on the market but also they need cash for future R&D programs.

When all is said and done, that US$40 billion Big Pharma vaccine revenue becomes around US$2.2 billion in net vaccine profits. Once again, I know we would all like to have a few billion sitting around to fund our lives, but in terms of Big Pharma as a whole, it’s really not much.

It may actually be quite a bit less because I’m ignoring things like cost of risk capital (even though Big Pharma is mostly self-funded, it’s not always so, and if that capital could make more money invested in gold or something, it’s a lost opportunity). Given this level of profit, and spread over 50 or so vaccines, it’s hard to imagine that Big Pharma executives are sitting in that Boardroom laughing at how they’re printing cash and storing gold bars because of vaccines.

The 2018 revenue of the top 3 drugs sold worldwide, Humira, Eliquis, and Revlimid are equivalent to all of the vaccines. In other words, if I were a Big Pharma exec, I’d look at vaccines as rounding error on our income statement and balance sheet. 

Big Pharma makes more money from pills than vaccines. Photo by pina messina on Unsplash

Are vaccines a good business strategy?

Going back to the laughing, unethical Big Pharma executives sitting in their boardroom, are they really conspiring to push vaccines on us, because it makes so much money? Or, as we saw above, would investing in another kind of medication make more money? Or would they make more money not even selling vaccines?

Let’s take an example of just one infectious disease, measles. According to the CDC, one hospitalization for a serious measles complication costs more than US$142 thousand. Typical cost breakdown of hospital billing indicates that pharmaceuticals and other consumables (syringes, IV’s, saline, etc.) are around 35-40% of the total cost to the patient (see Note 2).

So, just one serious case of measles, Big Pharma could get up to US$56,000 per patient. How much is one dose of MMR vaccine to prevent measles? Oh yeah, it’s about US$21.22 per dose

Let’s assume that Big Pharma ended production of all vaccines today because the evil Big Pharma execs wanted rapidly increase their profits. According to the CDC (pdf), there are about 4 million births in the USA every year. Starting today, those 4 million children annually will not be vaccinated, and the vaccine deniers will be dancing in the streets.

Let’s look at the hospitalization rate for those 4 million children for every single vaccine-preventable disease (see Notes 3 and 4):

DiseaseRisk of diseaseHospitalization rateHospitalization no.Hospitalization costTotal cost, US
Diphtheria0.60%100.0%24,000$16,982$ 407,568,000
Tetanus0.00%100.0%12$102,584$ 1,231,008
Pertussis4.72%16.0%30,208$16,588$ 501,075,200
Hib, Acute0.16%17.0%1,074$33,716$ 36,223,933
Polio, Paralytic0.03%100.0%1,240$29,168$ 36,167,700
Measles10.64%55.0%234,102$25,046$ 5,863,318,692
Rubella6.21%50.0%124,100$62,233$ 7,723,115,300
Mumps3.30%50.0%66,000$28,628$ 1,889,448,000
Hepatitis B0.07%50.0%1,440$21,357$ 30,753,360
Varicella9.84%1.0%3,936$13,125$ 51,652,782
Invasive Pneumococcal Disease0.21%50.0%4,240$14,823$ 62,849,520
Influenza42.00%0.9%15,120$3,990$ 60,328,800
Rotavirus12.75%2.1%10,710$3,994$ 42,775,740
Total US burden$ 16,706,508,035
Total developed world burden, est.$ 50,119,524,106
Numbers were derived from several sources. See Notes 2 and 3.

Of course, this is an imaginary scenario where everyone stops vaccinating because the anti-vaxxers win the day. Despite the fear, uncertainty, and doubt pushed by them, the overall vaccination rate remains in the low to mid 90% range.

But let’s get back this imaginary scenario where we stop vaccines. Outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics would soon occur within the first 1-2 years after we end vaccination. Based on information developed by the CDC and others, the total worldwide economic burden if we suddenly ended vaccines would exceed US$50 billion (and this ignores flu pandemics that might suddenly ravish the pediatric population).

If we stick with the estimate that about 40% of the cost of hospitalizations will fall to Big Pharma, then they would make about $20 billion a year, worldwide, from not vaccinating. But remember, most vaccines are given, at most, 2-3 times, so, long-term, the revenues derived from vaccines is rather flat, unless new diseases are prevented. But, the revenues from the diseases themselves repeat every single year, and possibly multiple times per child.

And most of the products used to treat these diseases don’t require the research and capital investment that vaccines require. In other words, the income derived from vaccine-preventable diseases would be more profitable than vaccines.

If we really believe that Big Pharma executives are greedy sociopaths looking for more money, then we have to carry that descriptive to its logical end. They would be ending vaccines tomorrow. Maybe today, if it’s not too late.

But there’s more about vaccine profits

Actually, there are other issues that become problematic if we suddenly had this size of an epidemic. For example, the number of ICU beds per capita has dropped by 75% since the 1960s partially as a result of the reduction in numbers of children with infectious diseases. See the irony there?

If we suddenly stopped vaccinating because Big Pharma wanted to make billions of more profits, our hospitals would be overwhelmed. And guess who’s making money then? Big Mortuary. Because children will die at much higher rates than in the 1950s because we couldn’t handle it.

And I’m ignoring all of the other burdens to modern countries if this happened. Parents who are unable to work. Long term healthcare costs for children who are seriously injured by these diseases. Emotional stress. Overwhelmed hospitals that can’t treat other chronic conditions. Even countries that have superior healthcare systems would collapse under the strain.

So, all of you people at Age of lying about Autism (see Note 5), how much money are YOU receiving from Big Pharma to create the illusion that vaccines are dangerous? Because, now I have uncovered the real goal of Big Pharma–get rid of vaccines. Yes, you vaccine deniers are the real shills for Big Pharma. How unethical can you be, sacrificing the lives and health of children for a few dollars from Big Pharma?

And I haven’t gotten to Big Iron Lung who has waited 60 years for the chance to get back into the game. I bet they’ve been investing in shills to push lies about polio vaccines.

I’m not naive. I know that pharmaceutical companies manufacture vaccines because they are able to make a decent profit, the goal of any corporation. But the profits are used not to buy gold bars to give as gifts to executives (or to pay me), but most of it is plowed into future generations of better drugs and devices.

They are not trying to harm humanity, because if they were ruthlessly profit motivated, like the narrative pushed by the science-denying anti-vaccine crowd, Big Pharma would close down vaccine research and manufacturing, and wait a year for huge epidemics.

Is Big Pharma perfect? Hell no, and I’ve said it before.

But vaccines save lives. And Big Pharma makes sure that happens. And they make that happen, despite the better profit scenario of not making one single vaccine. Because vaccine profits aren’t quite what the anti-vaxxers believe.

Notes

  1. EBITDA is an accounting measurement that is commonly used to determine the profitability of a business. It is sometimes called, “net profits,” but that term has been deprecated. The reason that interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization are not included in that EBITDA is a good measuring stick for the cash flow and potential profitability. But the actual profits must include those line items.
  2. Determining cost breakdowns of hospital bills is a complex, bewildering, and frustrating process. So, I estimated it based on several hospital bill breakdowns I found on the internet, including a personal one (for way too much money). I promise to revise these estimates if I can find actually good information .somewhere. In addition, if there was a range of estimates, I used a mean, or, better still, original data from the source.
  3. The data for this chart was adapted from a CDC study of the Vaccines for Children Program, which I have discussed previously. It only includes data for vaccines on the current schedule for babies and infants – it does not include other vaccines such as for HPV and meningitis. The estimates use the CDC estimate of 4 million live births per year in the USA. The data does not include other costs, like lost income for caretakers, pre-hospitalization costs (which is listed in the CDC study), or death. Big Mortuary would surely profit from the 40,000 deaths a year that would suddenly be added to the cost of eliminating vaccines.
  4. Flu data was adapted from here and here.
  5. I will no longer link to anti-vaccine websites. They should not profit from the popularity of this blog. If you want to see what the lying liars who lie, you can use Google. Fair warning, Google has downgraded the search results for anti-vaxxers. 

Editor’s note – this article was originally published on November 2015. It’s been updated to fix broken links, to use updated financial data, and to copyedit the article. 

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!