AbbVie says disappointing Viekira sales numbers are misleading

AbbVie's ($ABBV) Humira is riding high, as usual--but according to the company's execs, in the U.S., it's riding higher than ever. The company's going to need to apply that market-share magic to new launch Viekira Pak, which fell short of analysts' Q1 sales estimates. But that effort is already going better than investors may think, management says.

Viekira--Courtesy of AbbVie

Next-gen hep C therapy Viekira--rival to Gilead's ($GILD) soaring Harvoni--posted just $138 million in U.S. sales last quarter, AbbVie reported recently, falling short of the $236 million analysts expected.

But the launch--which has been underway for about three months now--is right where AbbVie wants it, CEO Richard Gonzalez assured investors on a conference call.

After all, tracking services don't capture all prescription data sources for the drug, including some managed care organizations and government entities, he pointed out. With all things considered, "weekly prescriptions are tracking well ahead of reported levels," he said.

Things should only ramp up in Q2, CFO Bill Chase said on the call, considering the April and May start dates for some of the exclusive payer contracts it inked as part of a pricing war with Gilead. As Chase noted, AbbVie's commercial efforts are "focused on driving strong penetration in the AbbVie exclusive accounts," and so far, he says, it's done that well with main squeeze Express Scripts, whose mammoth contract touched off the whole battle.

AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez

And while Viekira may have missed estimates stateside, it far surpassed them abroad, racking up $93 million to trounce the $32 million Wall Street forecast. The international launch "is progressing faster than anticipated," Gonzalez said, with Germany and other countries seeing significant uptake. And with payer discussions in various countries "on the way and advancing rapidly," he expects that pace to continue, contributing to a higher level of ex-U.S. sales than the company initially expected.

That's good news for the Illinois pharma, which will need a steady Viekira sales stream in place if Humira biosimilars take the toll some analysts are predicting. Right now, AbbVie's top moneymaker is hitting its stride; in Q1, the blockbuster hauled in $3.11 billion, vaulting 39.6% in the U.S. And as Gonzalez told shareholders, it's at an all-time market share high, holding about 25% of the rheumatology market, near 40% of the dermatology pie and close to 45% of the gastro space.

But all the success has put a target on its back for biosimilars makers, one of whom already has a product rolling out in India. And at least one analyst--Citi's Andrew Baum--thinks copycats will begin cutting into Humira's top line beginning in 2018, with revenues declining from $16 billion at their peak in 2017 to $6 billion in 2022.

AbbVie's well aware of those predictions, though, and on that front, it's ready to fight the knockoffs makers heading its way. "We have a robust portfolio of intellectual property protecting Humira, which we intend to enforce if infringed by a biosimilar applicant," Gonzalez warned.

- read the call transcript

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