Moderna (MRNA -1.69%) has been a huge winner so far this year. And why shouldn't it be? The biotech quickly emerged as one of the leaders in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna now belongs to an elite group of drugmakers with coronavirus vaccine candidates in late-stage testing. It's no surprise that its shares have soared more than 240% year to date.

But Moderna's impressive performance has come during the worst viral outbreak in more than a century. Sooner or later, the current coronavirus crisis will end. Will Moderna's gains keep going when the pandemic is over?

Silver die with question mark on top side, chart trending up on one side, and chart trending down on another side

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Plenty of variables

The chief difficulty with trying to determine what will happen with Moderna in the future is that there are so many variables. The most obvious variable is how the biotech's COVID-19 vaccine candidate mRNA-1273 will fare in late-stage testing.

Moderna's results from early stage testing provide reason to be cautiously optimistic about the chances for mRNA-1273 in the phase 3 study. History could also be on the company's side. Between 2006 and 2015, 74% of vaccine candidates in late-stage testing went on to win FDA approval. However, none of those candidates were based on an unproven approach like Moderna's messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.

Another key variable is how safe and effective other COVID-19 vaccine candidates prove to be. Moderna's mRNA-1273 could sail through to approval but still be viewed as sub-par compared to other vaccines.

One factor that hasn't received as much attention is the logistics of transporting and storing coronavirus vaccines. This could be a competitive disadvantage for mRNA-1273, which must be stored at negative four degrees Fahrenheit. 

There's also uncertainty about how many people will actually want to be vaccinated when COVID-19 vaccines are on the market. It's possible that this number could diminish once the pandemic is officially declared to be over.

Two potential scenarios

Let's look at two potential scenarios for Moderna in a post-pandemic world: one really optimistic and one less so.

First, let's assume that everything goes right for Moderna. mRNA-1273 demonstrates overwhelmingly positive results in phase 3 testing. It becomes one of the first COVID-19 vaccines on the market. But several of its top rivals stumble in clinical studies. Vaccination rates rise over time as people view the coronavirus vaccines as safe and effective.

In this scenario, Moderna could generate annual revenue measured in the tens of billions of dollars. The biotech stock would skyrocket more than it has so far this year.

Now for a less rosy view of the future, although not a worst-case outlook for Moderna. Assume that mRNA-1273 is successful in phase 3 testing and wins approval. However, several other vaccines also win approval, including some that are easier to transport and store. Vaccination rates initially hover around 50% but then fall after the pandemic ends. The lower demand combined with an abundant supply of vaccines from multiple drugmakers causes prices to plunge.

What would happen with Moderna in this scenario? It's still likely that the stock would enjoy a nice bump on mRNA-1273 performing well in late-stage testing and securing regulatory approvals. However, those gains would probably quickly fade as investors digested the less-than-ideal market dynamics. Moderna's shares could even conceivably slide back to near current levels over time.

A prediction

Which of these scenarios is more likely? If I could only pick from these two, I'd pick the less optimistic one. However, there are more potential outcomes for Moderna than just these two. My prediction of what the future might hold for the biotech after the pandemic is over combines aspects of both scenarios.

I suspect that several COVID-19 vaccine candidates, including mRNA-1273, will ultimately make it to market. My view is that Moderna won't realize sales in the tens of billions of dollars per year but will still have a megablockbuster vaccine on its hands. My hunch is that Moderna's revenue will be relatively stable as vaccination rates remain steady even after an end to the pandemic is officially declared.

In my view of Moderna's future, the stock will continue to rack up gains for years to come. However, I think that mRNA-1273 will only provide a catalyst through the next couple of years.

My hunch is that the bigger story for Moderna will be that the success of mRNA-1273 validates the company's mRNA approach overall. Its shares will rise higher and higher as investors appreciate the potential value of the rest of Moderna's pipeline and as the company advances its other programs.

In short, I think that Moderna will be a big winner in a post-pandemic world because of the potential for its mRNA approach and not just mRNA-1273. But (assuming mRNA-1273 doesn't flop in late-stage testing) it will probably be at least a year or two before we'll know if my prediction is on target.