Stellar Humira sales underscore AbbVie's need for replacement meds

AbbVie's ($ABBV) working toward solutions to protect its top line against Humira's inevitable decline. For now, though, its workhorse is still getting the job done, and it delivered yet another double-digit leap in Q1 to help the company beat expectations.

The blockbuster med hauled in $3.11 billion for the period, charting 18% growth and topping consensus estimates of $2.94 billion. The performance helped overall sales reach $5.04 billion, which also exceeded the $4.93 billion that analysts expected.

In turn, EPS checked in at 94 cents, outdoing both Wall Street's prediction of 85 cents and AbbVie's 82 cents to 84 cents guidance range.  A "much higher than expected gross margin and lower SG&A" also helped fuel the EPS beat, Evercore ISI analyst Mark Schoenebaum wrote in a note to investors.

Margin expansion is something the company could use more of as it moves toward Humira's 2016 U.S. patent expiration. The behemoth med already has biosimilar competition in India, and at least one analyst--Citi's Andrew Baum--thinks the business will take a hit beginning in 2018.

To help fill that void, AbbVie recently agreed to shell out $21 billion for blood cancer drugmaker Pharmacyclics ($PCYC), whose Imbruvica it thinks can bring it $7 billion in peak sales. On a conference call, Gonzalez also touted the progress of its new hep C treatment Viekira Pak, whose prescription numbers are "tracking well ahead of reported levels," he said. The therapy should also see a boost in Europe, where he says the initial launch is surpassing the company's expectations.

"Discussions with government payers in various countries are underway and advancing rapidly," he noted.

Still, AbbVie might have to take more action in the event of a Humira "bear case," Gonzalez said, and Schoenebaum, for one, has tossed out the idea of yet another Big Pharma slim-down. To that, the company said Thursday that "there is nothing 'structural' about AbbVie that would prevent large expense cuts, if needed," Schoenebaum wrote.

- read AbbVie's release

Special Report: The 10 best-selling drugs of 2013 - Humira