How will coronavirus hit U.S. drugmakers? Depends what kind of drugmaker you are: Moody's

Pills in pill container
Spread of the novel coronavirus in China and beyond would have mixed effects on U.S. biopharma companies, says Moody's. (Getty/Viperfzk)

There’s no doubt the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak poses a major threat to people’s health. But for U.S. biopharma companies, the impact on their businesses may be mixed, Moody’s said.

If the virus persists long enough, branded drugmakers may see decreased demand for their innovative drugs in China, the credit rating service said in a report on Wednesday. But on the other hand, the global spread of the virus could lead to government stockpiling of certain drugs such as antivirals.

As for generic players, which depend on China for active pharmaceutical ingredients, a continued outbreak may increase the risk of supply disruption, Moody’s said. But in the meantime, companies that source more from other countries may be able to increase their drugs’ prices and snatch market share in the U.S. as their competitors struggle.

Sept. 15-17,2020

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Branded drugmakers

Pharmas that focus on new meds are “unlikely to encounter material global supply disruptions,” because they don’t have a heavy manufacturing presence in China, Moody’s said. Drug supply chains are complex to track down, the firm acknowledged, and some products may have China’s input at some point, “but safety stock and alternate supply arrangements would help buffer any disruption.”

Several top drugmakers—including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, Merck KGaA and Roche—recently confirmed to FiercePharma that they have stock policies in place to minimize the impact.

Many companies do have manufacturing plants in China, though mostly for the local market. For example, Merck & Co. has a facility in Hangzhou that supplies drugs to China and other Asian countries. AstraZeneca has two manufacturing facilities in Wuxi and Taizhou, the latter of which started making drugs for the European market in mid-2017.

Perhaps a more tangible threat from the coronavirus for innovative drug developers is the potential slowdown in sales in China, which has been repeatedly cited as a major growth driver for foreign pharmas. For example, Merck & Co. saw its China revenues jump 58% in 2019, thanks to PD-1 inhibitor Keytruda and HPV vaccine Gardasil, among others. But Moody’s noted that China’s share in U.S. firms’ businesses remains relatively low—in the single-digit percentages.

The impacts on China sales are twofold. First, several drugmakers extended the Lunar New Year holiday for their local offices following notices from the Chinese government. Even when they return to work, sales reps are now advised not to call on customers in-person to avoid exposure.

That could lead to slower growth of new drugs in the short term, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen recently told FiercePharma. Several multinationals have also reportedly adjusted their bonus policies accordingly.

RELATED: Novo extends China employees' holiday amid coronavirus threat, expects manufacturing to start up next week

Secondly, patients are not actively seeking care or renewing prescriptions out of fear of contagion. It’s happening mostly for some less urgent diseases, but there are also reports of such cases among patients with silent but potentially life-threatening illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases.

“To the extent the outbreak slows the Chinese economy, or the Chinese healthcare system significantly diverts resources to coronavirus treatment and away from other diseases, growth in several pharmaceutical categories, ranging from cancer to diabetes, will slow,” Moody’s analysts wrote in the report.

Nevertheless, companies such as Gilead Sciences, AbbVie and Johnson & Johnson are collaborating with health authorities to develop antiviral medications to treat—or vaccines to prevent—coronavirus. Such drugs could be stockpiled by governments around the globe should the virus spread.

Generic drugmakers

In contrast, many generic players source APIs in China. This means these companies are more vulnerable to the situation there. Most API producers are located in provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang along the east coast of China, far from Hubei, the epicenter of the outbreak. But it’s hard to quantify the exact volume in each place or identify to whom they are providing the products.

Although there’s no sign of major widespread infections beyond Hubei, the virus has been detected in all provinces. Therefore, potential future impact on those major manufacturing hubs cannot be ruled out.

RELATED: As China battles coronavirus, should other countries worry about their drug supply?

The extended holiday—and hence business closures—adopted as a countermeasure to contain the virus has already triggered fear of supply constraints among Indian generic drugmakers. Umang Vohra, head of Cipla, said supplies would start running out by the end of February unless China resumes production, according to the Financial Times.

The coronavirus outbreak has already pushed up API prices in India as companies stock up amid a decline in supply. The problem could also apply to the U.S., given China’s status as a major producer of APIs of antibiotics and vitamins.

But as Moody’s noted, several key generic players in the U.S. market, including Amneal Pharmaceuticals, Mylan and Teva, manufacture a lot of their own APIs in the U.S. and Europe. “Supply disruptions in China could benefit these companies, which would be able to raise prices if one or more of their competitors is sidelined,” the financial analytics company said in the report.

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