Covid medications help big pharma groups beat expectations

Roche CEO warns of likely 30% reduction in demand for Covid medicines and tests this year

Covid was the common currency as three top pharma groups reported results on Thursday.US groups Eli Lilly and Merck (known in Europe as MSD) both beat expectations, while Swiss drugmaker Roche warned that it was expecting less demand for its Covid-19 medicines and diagnostic tests.

Eli Lilly said better than expected profits in the fourth quarter were driven by strong sales of its Covid-19 antibody treatments and its blockbuster diabetes drug.

Sales of the company's Covid-19 antibody therapies – bamlanivimab and etesevimab – topped $1 billion (€877m) in the three months to the end of December, up 22 per cent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Sales of its diabetes drug Trulicity were up a quarter to $1.88 billion.

Last month the US Food and Drug Administration rescinded its emergency use authorisation for Lilly’s antibodies, saying they were unlikely to work against the Omicron variant.

Lilly reported a quarterly profit of $2.49 per share on an adjusted basis, which beat consensus estimates of $2.46 per share, according to Refinitiv.

Keytruda

Merck attributed its forecast-beating profits to strong sales of its blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda and almost $1 billion in sales from its Covid-19 antiviral pill.

It said it sold $952 million of its newly-released Covid-19 antiviral pill molnupiravir in the fourth quarter and expected $5 billion-$6 billion full year sales of the treatment in 2022.

Molnupiravir was initially tipped as a key weapon to blunt the pandemic until a rival antiviral from Pfizer showed significantly better efficacy in preventing hospitalisations.

Sales of Keytruda, Merck’s cancer immunotherapy, increased 15 per cent in the fourth quarter to $4.58 billion.

Merck said total sales in the three months to the end of December jumped 25 per cent to $13.5 billion compared with the same quarter a year earlier. Analysts had estimated fourth quarter sales of $13.2 billion.

Fourth-quarter earnings hit $1.80 a share, up from $0.98 in the same quarter of 2020. Analysts had expected earnings of $1.53 a share.

Swiss drugmaker Roche said its sales growth would slow this year as it braces for less demand for its Covid-19 medicines and tests, expecting immunity against the novel coronavirus to prevail in the population from about April.

In an earnings statement the company said it expected currency-adjusted 2022 sales to be flat or grow in the low-single digits, below last year’s 9 per cent gain.

Declining demand

Roche anticipates sales of Covid-19 medicines and diagnostics to decrease by about two billion Swiss francs (€1.9 billion) to around CHF5 billion it added.

It proposed raising its 2021 dividend to CHF9.30 per share but its stock fell 2.6 per cent on the outlook.

Group earnings edged higher in 2021 as brisk demand for Covid-19 diagnostic tools and new prescriptions for drugs such as Hemlibra against haemophilia and cancer immunotherapy Tecentriq offset a sales decline in older cancer drugs.

For now,demand for its rapid antigen tests as well as lab-processed PCR tests remained strong, but chief executive Severin Schwan told journalists on a call he was preparing for the pandemic to slow from the April-to-June quarter.

Core operating profit, or earnings before interest and tax, adjusted for one-off items, rose 2 per cent to CHF21.9 billion in 2021, in line with analyst estimates.

Like Eli Lilly, Roche's Ronapreve Covid-19 antibody treatment, made with Regeneron, was shown to have lost its neutralising activity against the Omicron variant. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022 / Reuters

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