Payer squeeze prompts Sanofi to slash 20% of U.S. diabetes sales force

Sanofi's headquarters in Paris
Sanofi, under pressure from an underperforming diabetes business, plans to cut 20% of its diabetes and cardiovascular sales force.

Sanofi, under pressure from an underperforming diabetes business and slower-than-expected drug launches, plans to cut 20% of its diabetes and cardiovascular salesforce, which could amount to hundreds of jobs.

The staff reductions are part of a larger shakeup for the diabetes and cardiovascular business, which Sanofi disclosed internally on Friday. "As a result of the new model, we did announce an approximate 20% staff reduction, including our sales force and some business support functions for this business unit," spokeswoman Ashleigh Koss said via email.

The company’s diabetes sales have been suffering on unprecedented payer pressure in the U.S., and that pressure is only expected to increase as rivals—including cheaper biosimilars—make an entrance. On the cardiovascular side, its cholesterol-fighting PCSK9 drug Praluent has fallen short of initial expectations, partly on payers' reluctance to cover the pricey med.

Indeed, the news comes just days before Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim roll out their biosimilar version of Lantus, which has long been Sanofi’s top seller. A $7 billion drug, Lantus is expected to fade significantly as Lilly and BI’s Basaglar—and a forthcoming biosim from Merck & Co.—capture market share from the brand. Sanofi’s newer basal insulin, Toujeo, has drawn over some Lantus patients, but far from enough to fill its predecessor’s shoes.

Rumored for weeks, the sales cuts fall in line with an announcement earlier this year from one of Sanofi’s chief diabetes rivals, Novo Nordisk, which said it would cut 1,000 employees as it retrenches amid pricing pressure and competition in the U.S. Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt said late last year that the company would cut 1.5 billion euros in costs as it refocuses beyond diabetes.

Sanofi had made a big move in that direction in the spring with an $9 billion-plus bid to buy the U.S. cancer drug maker Medivation, but the offer touched off a bidding war that ended in a $14 billion deal with Pfizer. Since then, Sanofi closed on an asset swap with Boehringer, which sent the French drugmaker's animal health unit to BI in return for its consumer health business—a deal that made Sanofi the biggest consumer health marketer in the world

Lately, Sanofi is said to be in the race to buy Actelion, the Swiss drugmaker with a stable of drugs for pulmonary arterial hypertension, including the fast-launching Opsumit. Johnson & Johnson reportedly has made a sweetened, $27 billion offer for that company, putting it beyond Brandicourt's price range of up to $20 billion. 

Koss said she could not specify how many Sanofi employees would lose their jobs in the U.S. restructuring because some could be offered positions elsewhere in the company. The laid-off workers will receive severance packages, health benefits and outplacement services, she said.

The Sanofi job cuts follow a week of layoffs news in the pharma business, including similar sales-related cuts announced by AstraZeneca. The U.K.-based drugmaker said it would cut 700 positions in its U.S. commercial organization, with most of them hitting sales reps around the country. The latest reductions follow larger cutbacks on the contract sales side earlier this year, when AstraZeneca ratcheted back its deal with Publicis Touchpoint Solutions, affecting 1,600 staffers, many of them in AZ's own diabetes business.

Also last week, Endo bailed out of a pain drug deal and sidelined its other pain promotions in a revamp that will claim 375 jobs. And in by far the largest announcement of the week, Mylan said “less than 10%” of its worldwide job rolls would be cut as it integrates a series of acquisitions; with more than 35,000 employed around the globe, that translates into 3,500 jobs on the line.

And at Sanofi, the U.S. cuts follow 500 layoffs announced in France early this year.