Retail scripts of vaccines, acute drugs decline sharply amid COVID-19 pandemic

It’s understandable that retail prescriptions of drugs have declined since COVID-19 hit the U.S., as patients refrain from visiting physicians. But still, some drugs are suffering terribly, while others appear to be holding steady.

Broadly speaking, total prescriptions for drugs for acute use have plummeted by 28% since February, Bernstein analysts noted after going through IQVIA data. In contrast, chronic disease therapies are doing well, with weekly scripts even growing 2% at the end of March as compared with early February.

Within the realm of branded products, vaccines saw the most decline, probably because people stopped going to public spaces to address a disease they don’t even have. Meanwhile, the autoimmune market, HIV and anticoagulants have so far experienced no impact, according to Bernstein.

Among the top 10 brand losers Bernstein noticed for the period, only Takeda’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder med Vyvanse and Pfizer’s nicotine addiction treatment Chantix are not vaccines or for influenza.

Prior to the pandemic, demands for GlaxoSmithKline’s Shingrix constantly outpaced supply. But now, total scripts of the shingles vaccine have dipped 84%, and new-to-brand scripts have sunk by 85%. During the first quarter of last year, Shingrix sales totaled £357 million.

As the flu season nears an end, injections of flu vaccines—including Seqirus’ Flucelvax Quadrivalent and Afluria Quadrivalent, as well as Sanofi’s Fluzone and Fluzone High-Dose—have all slumped by at least 95%. At the same time, Roche’s flu drug Tamiflu and its follow-on Xofluza underwent the same fate.

Use of Pfizer’s Prevnar 13 and Merck & Co.’s Pneumovax 23, both pneumococcal vaccines, fell by 72% and 60%, respectively.

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Right behind those two categories, ophthalmology drugs took a big hit, with total scripts plunging 41%, Bernstein said. Prescriptions for Allergan’s dry eye drug Restasis declined 26% during the period. The analysts argue the ophthalmic trend likely spells bad news for Regeneron and its wet age-related macular degeneration drug Eylea.

Allergan suffered a double whammy, as over half of the scripts for its inflammatory bowel disease drug Linzess were wiped out noticeably last week. Restasis and Linzess are big revenue earners at Allergan, with U.S. first-quarter 2019 sales of $231.7 million and $161.3 million, respectively.

The good news for Allergan is that antipsychotic Vraylar hasn't been affected. Its weekly scripts have continued on an upward trend even throughout the COVID-19 period so far. Impact on some other fast-growing drugs has also been limited, including Sanofi’s anti-inflammatory antibody Dupixent, Gilead Sciences’ HIV combo Biktarvy and the CGRP migraine class. 

Overall, diabetes meds, drugs for mental health and respiratory agents have even gained scripts.

Moving forward, Bernstein suspects “much higher impact on physician-administered drugs.” The analysts based the prediction on the logic that decreasing interactions with doctors will decrease the use of those drugs. But the team acknowledged it’s just a hypothesis, especially as one could also argue that those drugs usually address serious conditions that patients simply must attend to.

Either way, industry watchers may get some clues Tuesday when Johnson & Johnson reports first-quarter earnings, with a spotlight on inflammatory infusion Remicade.