AbbVie touts Humira defense strategy abroad as a positive sign for forthcoming U.S. battle

AbbVie's strength has long been tied to the performance of megablockbuster Humira, which is facing an existential threat as U.S. copycats creep closer. Despite a "more aggressive" than expected biosimilar challenge abroad, AbbVie believes its defense strategy—and lessons learned—will help it weather the storm.

In an earnings call with analysts Friday, AbbVie CEO Rick Gonzalez touted the drugmaker's copycat-fighting strategy abroad, where Humira posted a 31.1% sales decrease in 2019 to $4.3 billion.

Rather than a "stair-step" decrease in market share, Gonzalez said a group of biosim competitors entering the market at the same time created an aggressive pricing challenge to Humira. While the dropoff was steeper than expected, AbbVie believes the erosion will tail off in the coming years and leave the drug with about two-thirds of the market. If that model holds true in the U.S., where Humira picked up $4 billion in sales on the quarter, it could represent a positive sign for a drug widely expected to crater from numerous biosims. 

"I’m feeling pretty good about how the strategy played out," Gonzalez told analysts. "Our strategy was to make sure that we could maintain as much share as possible and maintain it as profitable as possible. The strategy that we’ll put in place (in the U.S.) is the exact same as we put in the international market."

Globally, Humira posted $4.9 billion in sales during the fourth quarter, which came in flat compared with the same period in 2018. Worldwide, the drug pulled in $19.17 billion, a 4% decline. Biosimilars launched in Europe in late 2018, meaning 2019 was the first full year of competition for the drug.

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AbbVie has placed high hopes in both drugs, with Gonzalez telling investors at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January that the pair could net combined peak sales of $20 billion––roughly Humira's highest output. 

Elsewhere in AbbVie's portfolio, sales for hematology/oncology med Imbruvica reached $1.3 billion during the quarter, a 28.9% jump. Newer launch Venclexta hit $251 million in sales, more than doubling its haul from the same period last year. On the whole, AbbVie posted $8.7 billion in sales on the quarter, a 4.8% increase from the same time last year. AbbVie hit $33.3 billion in revenue on the year, a little more than 1% growth. 

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Gonzalez specifically pointed to the strong performance of Allergan's antipsychotic Vraylar, which has posted skyrocketing prescription figures, and oral CGRP med Ubrelvy, which was approved in December. 

"As we look at our profile and our ability to grow, we don’t believe that’s a significant issue for us," he said. "That’s not something that we have any plans for at this time."