Maybe, just maybe, one or more COVID-19 vaccines could be on the way. Five novel coronavirus vaccines are currently in late-stage testing. If all goes well, Americans could possibly have access to a COVID-19 vaccine that's safe and effective in the first half of next year.

As you might expect, it costs a lot of money to develop vaccines. Should you brace for a steep price tag for a COVID-19 vaccine? Actually, no. You might be surprised by how much you'll have to pay for a coronavirus vaccine. 

Man and woman smiling while looking at the screen of a laptop held by the man

Image source: Getty Images.

A good kind of sticker shock 

Flu vaccines typically cost in the ballpark of $40. A new shingles vaccine can cost nearly $300 for two shots. Will a COVID-19 vaccine's cost be somewhere in the middle? Nope. Guess lower. Much lower.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) intends to make COVID-19 vaccines available to Americans at no cost. That's right, the price tag for you will be $0. 

We're not talking about only Medicare members. The no-cost offer isn't just for individuals with low incomes. HHS publicly stated that an approved COVID-19 vaccine will be free "to the American people." That includes everyone, regardless of age, income, or the type of health plan you have.

Granted, there could be some money changing hands. Your healthcare provider will be allowed to charge insurers for the cost of administering the COVID-19 vaccine. That's normal with vaccines purchased by the government, though. And it will be the insurance company forking over cash instead of you. 

The price you won't see but will still pay

You've probably heard the expression that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, there's also no such thing as a free vaccine. There's a price tag for COVID-19 vaccines that you won't see but will still probably pay.

It's sometimes easy to forget that when the U.S. government buys something, taxpayers are the ones ultimately footing the bill. If you pay federal taxes, you will indirectly pay for COVID-19 vaccines. 

COVID-19 vaccines on top of $100 bills

Image source: Getty Images.

The U.S. government plans to buy 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer (PFE 0.66%) and BioNTech, assuming the two drugmakers' lead candidate wins FDA approval or Emergency Use Authorization. It's paying $1.95 billion, which amounts to a price of $19.50 per dose. 

Spreading that $1.95 billion cost across roughly 119.5 million taxpayers comes to a little over $16 per taxpayer. However, you're really paying more than that.

In March, HHS announced that it would provide $456 million in funding for Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ -1.82%) COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The department committed up to $483 million in April for Moderna's (MRNA 1.58%) experimental coronavirus vaccine.

In May, HHS agreed to pay up to $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca (AZN 0.46%) to support the development and manufacturing of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate AZD1222. And in July, the U.S. government signed a deal with Novavax to get 100 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate in exchange for funding of $1.6 billion. 

Just last week, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline won a deal with the U.S. government to supply 100 million doses of their vaccine candidate that's currently in preclinical testing. The price tag of this agreement totaled up to $2.1 billion, including funding for the clinical development process. 

In addition to these agreements, HHS is paying Emergent BioSolutions $628 million under an existing contract with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Some of this amount targets manufacturing a COVID-19 vaccine, but some also will go toward Emergent BioSolutions helping make therapeutics for the novel coronavirus disease.

Even if we exclude the HHS deal with Emergent, the U.S. government is paying more than $6.1 billion in total for COVID-19 vaccines. That means each American taxpayer's portion of the bill comes to over $51. Clearly, the "no-cost" coronavirus vaccine that hopefully is on the way won't really be free.

Going higher

The price tag for COVID-19 vaccines is also likely to increase. For example, both AstraZeneca and J&J have said they won't try to make a profit from their vaccines during the pandemic. But there could still be high demand for COVID-19 vaccines even after the pandemic officially ends. That could set the stage for the big pharma companies to raise their prices.

There will also almost certainly be a limit on how many vaccine doses the U.S. government will purchase and make available at no cost. Once the current healthcare crisis is over, you might have to pay some amount out of pocket for a COVID-19 vaccine.

How much could that amount be? Moderna could provide a hint. The biotech is reportedly considering pricing its COVID-19 vaccine at between $50 and $60 per two-dose course in the U.S. Other drugmakers could eventually set their prices in this general ballpark, too.

Rising prices in the future in the world of healthcare? That's no surprise at all.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Moderna is reportedly considering pricing its vaccine at between $50 and $60 per dose. It's actually reportedly considering pricing of $50 to $60 per two-dose course. the Fool regrets the error.