Expand chart
Data: Company filings; Note: First nine months of 2019 shown; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Lipitor, the cholesterol-lowering medication that has become the gold standard of statins, continues to generate roughly $2 billion per year in sales for Pfizer, even though its patent expired eight years ago.

The big picture: Almost all of Pfizer's Lipitor sales now come from China and other emerging markets. But Lipitor's ability to remain a blockbuster drug, even with so many generic competitors that cost pennies per pill, shows how distorted the global pharmaceutical system can be.

By the numbers: Worldwide Lipitor sales peaked in 2006, at almost $13 billion, with more than 60% coming from the U.S.

  • After Lipitor's patent lapsed in late 2011, sales started declining precipitously in the U.S. as numerous generic atorvastatin pills hit the market.
  • But since 2014, annual sales have hovered around $2 billion thanks to the gigantic Chinese market.
  • Pfizer has frequently won bids to sell Lipitor in Chinese hospitals, "as they could more easily offer quality assurances for their higher-cost medicines," Bloomberg reported earlier this year.
  • But after losing a large hospital bid last year, Pfizer lowered Lipitor's price in China by 30% "in the hope patients would buy it privately," the Financial Times reported.

Between the lines: Lipitor is mostly bought overseas but holds a small pulse domestically. Pfizer is on pace to sell roughly $100 million of the statin in the U.S. this year.

  • That isn't a lot of money broadly speaking. But it still means patients, health insurance programs and taxpayers are paying upwards of $14 per Lipitor pill when generic equivalents cost less than a dime per pill.
  • Pfizer advertises a Lipitor coupon card for the uninsured and those with commercial insurance — the type of card that is outlawed in Medicare and Medicaid because it's viewed as a kickback.
  • Pfizer didn't immediately respond to questions.

The bottom line: Lipitor remains a global money-maker for Pfizer despite generic competition.

Go deeper: Generic drugs aren't always favored

Go deeper

Updated 16 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Politics: Pence chief of staff Marc Short tests positive for coronavirus — COVID-19 looms over White House Halloween celebrations.
  2. Health: Fauci says maybe we should mandate masks if people don't wear them — America was sick well before it ever got COVID-19.
  3. World: Polish President Andrzej Duda tests positive for COVID-19.
What Matters 2020

The missed opportunities for 2020 and beyond

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Jason Armond (Los Angeles Times), Noam Galai, Jabin Botsford (The Washington Post), Alex Wong/Getty Images

As the 2020 presidential campaign draws to a close, President Trump and Joe Biden have focused little on some of the most sweeping trends that will outlive the fights of the moment.

Why it matters: Both have engaged on some issues, like climate change and China, on their own terms, and Biden has addressed themes like economic inequality that work to his advantage. But others have gone largely unmentioned — a missed opportunity to address big shifts that are changing the country.

Pence chief of staff Marc Short tests positive for coronavirus

Marc Short with Katie Miller, Vice President Pence's communications director, in March. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times via Reuters

Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday and is quarantining, according to a White House statement.

Why it matters: Short is Pence's closest aide, and was one of the most powerful forces on the White House coronavirus task force.