Amgen's psoriasis pill Otezla thrives amid pandemic against injectable rivals

As companies worldwide grapple with sales challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Amgen is getting a boost from its newly acquired immunology blockbuster Otezla.

The medicine, picked up from Celgene last year, has bested the company's expectations despite the pandemic. As a pill competing against a sea of injectable psoriasis competitors, the med’s oral administration has "proved to be a convenient option” for patients, Murdo Gordon, executive vice president of global commercial operations, told analysts Tuesday. More patients started on the medicine in recent months than on Otezla’s branded rivals, Gordon said, even as COVID-19 caused a decline in new patient starts across the field.

In all, the drug generated $561 million in sales during the second quarter, a 14% increase from the same period last year. But expenses from Amgen's $13.4 billion acquisition of the medicine led to a 15% decline in earnings per share for the company. The medicine beat sales expectations from analysts, as well.

Elsewhere in Amgen’s portfolio, changes in treatment guidelines amid COVID-19 hurt sales for Prolia, Nplate and Xgeva, execs said on Tuesday's call. But the company’s white blood cell booster, Neulasta Onpro, “benefited ... as it provides a convenient solution to help patients avoid additional visits to their site of care post chemotherapy,” Gordon said. 

The company posted $6.2 billion in second-quarter sales, a 6% increase over the same period last year, when revenues were down on losses of patent protection. And while “social distancing” led to “medical distancing” in the first and second quarters of 2020, Gordon sees the second half of the year playing out differently.  

Social distancing is still a “critical behavior” to cut COVID-19 risks, he said, but providers and payers are now “encouraging patients to stay in touch with the doctors and to continue to seek medical care either by telemedicine or through in-person appointments.” 

“While certain parts of the U.S. and other countries have observed an increase in COVID-19 infections, our conversation with customers indicates that they are better prepared to handle spikes in cases as compared to four months ago,” he added. That sentiment echoes comments from Johnson & Johnson executives on their earnings call earlier this month. 

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Looking forward with Otezla, acquired from Celgene before that drugmaker sold itself to Bristol Myers Squibb, Amgen hopes to expand into mild- to moderate- psoriasis patients. The biotech has a specific focus on patients with a “larger surface area of the skin involved in their psoriasis” who find topical treatments “incompatible with the nature of their disease,” R&D chief David Reese said on Tuesday's call.

Since the acquisition, Amgen has started a primary care promotional push on the medicine, Reese said, which Celgene had not done. And the drugmaker is “cross-training” its Enbrel sales reps to promote Otezla in anticipation of the potential new indication in mild- to moderate- psoriasis. 

“From our interactions with prescribers, we've been encouraged by their enthusiasm for what Otezla might offer these individuals,” he said.

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Otezla is also approved to treat adults with psoriatic arthritis, and Amgen is testing it in COVID-19, among its other efforts to address the pandemic.