What pledge? AbbVie executives may back off their vow to limit price hikes: report

AbbVie executives, confident of its patent strength, think Humira can reach $20 billion in sales, according to an analyst report.

Looking to combat the public drug-pricing backlash, AbbVie in January followed their peers in promising to hold the line at less than 10%. Now, though, they're thinking about reneging on that pledge, according to a report from analysts. For its part, AbbVie refuted the report on Tuesday.

The pricing development came from analysts at Leerink, who walked away from a management meeting last week impressed enough to roll out a 14-page report detailing their upbeat outlook for AbbVie. Confident they can hold off Humira biosimilars until 2022, the company trotted out a $20 billion target for its best-selling drug, a figure higher than the full-company sales of some rival Big Pharmas.

And it didn't hurt that AbbVie executives said the company may revisit its pricing pledge, according to the report, which could limit its ability to reap maximum sales from Humira as the end of its monopoly nears, a common strategy in the pharma business. Price hikes have been an important growth driver at AbbVie, the analysts said.

As political and public drug pricing pressure threatened a regulatory overhaul in recent years, AbbVie joined many of its pharma competitors in committing to only raise prices once a year and at a level below 10%. But management now thinks pricing pressure is subsiding, according to the analysts. 

AbbVie leadership believes the company "has the flexibility to revert to more than one price increase per year and to double-digit increases in 2018 and beyond," the analysts wrote.

But AbbVie denied the report on Tuesday, saying the statements by management at the meeting were "incorrectly characterized."

"We evaluate specific pricing decisions on an annual basis, with careful consideration of a variety of factors," a spokesperson said in a statement. "For 2018, AbbVie will take one single digit price increase and will continue to act responsibly with respect to drug pricing."

Allergan CEO Brent Saunders famously kicked off the pricing trend in a post last year about pharma's "social contract." Drugmakers including Novo Nordisk, AbbVie, Takeda and Sanofi followed up with pledges of their own.

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The pricing news at AbbVie follows a prediction Bernstein analyst Ronny Gal made during an interview with FiercePharma last month. He said companies have so far stuck to the price-limiting strategy because "it works," but that could change.

“I’m guessing it will stay here until the noise comes down,” he said last month. “Then, someone will take a step up, and if there’s no response, more people will do it.”

Led by Humira, AbbVie management said during their Leerink meeting that the company's immunology franchise could approach $30 billion in annual sales. Other programs in the group include upadacitinib and risankizumab.  

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Outside of immunology, the company thinks it can get a combined $10 billion to $12 billion out of its hematology and oncology assets Imbruvica and Venclexta, according to the report. Venclexta, in fact, recently racked up new data expected to prompt an early filing for broader use of the drug. And the drugmaker expects other drug programs to enter the oncology fray through "internal and external sources," according to the report. 

Neurology, the third component of AbbVie's strategy, should start making meaningful contributions in the middle of the next decade, the executives said. 

Like other top biologics, AbbVie's Humira has been under a growing biosimilar threat, with Boehringer Ingelheim and Amgen boasting FDA approvals for Cyltezo and Amjevita, respectively. Due to AbbVie's patent defense, neither has launched. AbbVie last month sued Boehringer, arguing the German drugmaker's efforts to market a biosim infringes some of its patents. Humira is protected by more than 100 patents, according to the lawsuit. 

Before Boehringer's approval last month, Amgen's biosimilar won a U.S. green light last year—that company also faces a patent suit from AbbVie. Humira's web of patents is one big reason why many analysts don't see the big-selling brand fading away even though it's losing some protections.

In recent data compiled for FiercePharma, life science commercial intelligence firm Evaluate predicted the brand would reach $19 billion in peak annual sales and $179 billion in lifetime sales through 2022. Humira brought in $16 billion last year, or 63% of AbbVie's total revenue.

Other companies with Humira biosimilars in the works include Novartis’ Sandoz unit, Biogen and Fujifilm Kyowa Kirin Biologics. Each of those versions have advanced to regulators in Europe, according to press releases. Merck and Coherus also have biosims in development. 

Editor's note: This story was updated with a Tuesday statement from AbbVie.