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Roche Bullish Despite Biosimilars Battering

Roche Bullish Despite Biosimilars Battering

Source : 'Scrip Intelligence'

Roche Holding AG 's pharma revenues suffered a tough fourth quarter 2020 as its trio of big-selling cancer drugs – Avastin, MabThera/Rituxan and Herceptin – were again hit by biosimilars and the impact of COVID-19 was keenly felt on its doctor-administered drugs.

Pharmaceutical turnover came in at CHF10.22bn ($11.30bn), a fall of 7%, while the pandemic helped push up diagnostics revenues by 28% to CHF4.12bn. Pharma chief Bill Anderson said that COVID-19 had a negative impact of about CHF2.5bn last year on products across the portfolio, but that effect was softened by CHF500m increase in sales associated with the use of its rheumatoid arthritis drug Actemra (tocilizumab) for treating hospitalized patients with COVID. ()

The extent of the biosimilars impact was a surprise given that Roche's guidance a year ago was that sales of the three big-selling cancer drugs in the US, EU and Japan would be CHF4bn less. However Anderson told Scrip that it ended up being about CHF5.05bn in those three areas but also in other parts of the world, bringing the total impact of biosimilars last year to CHF5.7bn.

"This year, we expect the impact to be about CHF4.6bn, so a lower effect than last year but still very significant," he added. "I guess what we would say is that the uptake of biosimilars has been at the high end of expectations."


That said, Anderson went on to claim, "We're not particularly worried because our strategy from ten years ago, when we saw this day arriving, was to say we have to out-innovate the world and that's what we've done." He cited Ocrevus (ocrelizumab) for multiple sclerosis and the hemophilia A therapy Hemlibra (emicizumab) as examples of "highly innovative medicines that are still growing," but noted that said growth slowed due to patients not going to appointments or not being diagnosed and delays in switching to new therapies.

As to when healthcare systems will return to something approaching normality, Anderson said that with vaccines continuing to roll out over the course of the first six months of the year, "the second half of 2021 should be pretty close to normal." He added that "it's important to underscore that even in the worst of the most recent wave in the pandemic – November, December, first half of January – where we saw really high levels of COVID infections all around the world, the healthcare systems in many of those countries were much less affected than they had been back in April and May. I think that's an encouraging sign: there were a lot of routine clinical procedures taking place even in December, in the darkest hours."

The pandemic has not had a major impact on Roche's clinical trial programs. Anderson said, "Many companies decided to suspend initiation of new studies or to suspend dosing and we looked at the trials that we had ongoing and we didn't think that was the right call. We thought it was important to keep going because unfortunately, cancer doesn't stop for pandemics nor do the other serious diseases we're trying to treat."

He added, "We stayed on track, probably 75%-80% through the pandemic, though there were varying impacts in different therapy areas. The clinical trials continue to be challenged even now and while early in the pandemic, it was because patients couldn't get in to see their doctors, now it tends to be things like shortages of critical supplies but we've worked really hard to overcome those."

Anderson noted that in pharma, Roche increased its R&D spend by CHF800m in 2020 and "a lot of that money went to fund all these new late stage programs we have. We're really going to be doubling down our investments in R&D this year, while looking to very much streamline all our other operations as we just think that's the future. We have now 19 new medicines in the pivotal or filing stage, which is by far a record for us and I think it's industry-leading."

By Kevin Grogan