Roche fights off biosimilar competition as new medicines’ sales soar

Roche has seen its pharmaceutical sales increase in 2019 as it fought off the impact of cheaper near-copies of its most successful drugs with a batch of new medicines.

The Swiss pharma’s “big three” cancer drugs – Avastin, Herceptin, and Rituxan/MabThera, look to have reached their peak.

All three of the blockbuster drugs face biosimilar competition in Europe and the US, and the impact can be seen in the sales figures, particularly in Europe where the rivals are more entrenched.

However strong performances from recently launched medicines – Ocrevus for MS, Hemlibra for haemophilia, and cancer drugs Tecentriq and Perjeta meant that sales in the company’s pharma division were up 11% to 48.5 billion Swiss francs for the full year, almost $50 billion. Group sales were up 9% in constant currencies to nearly 61.5 billion ($63 billion)

Of the “big three”, Avastin has been least affected so far by biosimilars, with sales up 4% to just over 7 billion Swiss francs ($7.3 billion).

But CEO Severin Schwan said in a briefing with investors that the worst is over in Europe, where sales of MabThera are sharply down at 590 million Swiss francs ($607 million) for the year.

The company’s European business is now returning to growth after the hit from biosimilars thanks to its newer medicines, he said.

However he forecast a further hit this year from Avastin biosimilars, which are just being launched in the US and are beginning to penetrate the European market.

Pfizer is to launch cheaper biosimilars of the “big three” drugs in the US at discounts of 22% to 24% compared with the originator drugs, and there is competition from other manufacturers too.

Roche expects to counter this with other launches, including the spinal muscular atrophy drug risdiplam, which the FDA is reviewing with a decision due on 24th May.

An oral therapy, risdiplam will go up against two recently launched and highly pricey therapies for the muscle-wasting disease: Biogen’s Spinraza and Novartis’ gene therapy Zolgensma.

At $2.1 million for a single shot, Zolgmensma is the most expensive drug in the world, and a more conventional oral therapy may be more attractive to payers.

He added that the coronavirus outbreak in China is making things operations tough in the country, with employees’ travel reduced to an absolute minimum and increased working from home.

Although the company was the first to provide a test for the virus, isolation of cities has made it difficult to bring diagnostics to point of care.


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