Biogen execs outline setbacks, and potential gains, from COVID-19 pandemic

In all of biopharma, Biogen and its employees may be the most intimately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from dozens of illnesses—and their associated quarantines and headlines—the drugmaker has had to work through unexpected demand, regulatory challenges and dosing delays for top drugs.

But as the Boston biotech's Q1 sales show, the COVID-19 pandemic does present opportunities, too. And if some potential therapies work out, its top line could continue to benefit.

Biogen recorded about $100 million in accelerated sales during the first quarter as doctors and patients rushed to secure treatment before societies went into lockdown. Going forward, the company expects revenue “volatility,” CFO Jeff Cappello said on Tuesday’s call with analysts. 

On the flip side, Biogen has seen business disruptions such as delays in dosing for multiple sclerosis infusion Tysabri and spinal muscular atrophy infusion Spinraza. Some providers have had to make “difficult prioritization decisions” as health systems come under siege from the pandemic, Cappello said, but some infusion sites are now coming back online.

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The company is working to enable at-home infusions for Tysabri, execs said, but Spinraza must be administered in a facility.

During the quarter, Biogen saw a decrease in new patient starts for Spinraza and lower adherence, he added. Still, the med’s sales grew 9% versus the same period in 2019, to $565 million. 

Meanwhile, some researchers have expressed interest in the company's interferon therapies as potential medicines to fight COVID-19. Biogen is working with those experts, and potential success could bring added sales down the line.

Plus, the company has signed up to manufacture Vir Biotechnology’s potential antibody drugs against the virus, though details of the deal haven't yet been released.

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As for Biogen's R&D engine, the company expects many of its 10 key data readouts to come by the end of 2021 as expected, execs said on the call.  

Aside from the pandemic’s effects on individual products, there are “macro risks” in the larger economy that could affect payer reimbursement, Cappello said.

Some Biogen employees experienced COVID-19 personally after a Boston management meeting in late February resulted in dozens of infections across numerous states and countries. The company has since pledged a $10 million donation to pandemic relief efforts and many recovered employees are donating blood to a “biobank” to help researchers learn more about the virus. 

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Much of Biogen's Tuesday conference call centered not on the pandemic, however, but on aducanumab, the company's closely watched Alzheimer’s disease prospect. The company had planned to submit it for FDA approval early this year, but in releasing first-quarter results, the drugmaker said it had pushed that filing back to the third quarter. 

Analysts repeatedly asked about the delay, and Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos said the company is “prioritizing quality of submission versus the timing.” Plus, some members of the team came down with COVID-19, also contributing to the delay, R&D chief Al Sandrock told analysts. 

Biogen is among the first drugmakers to report first-quarter earnings following a difficult quarter for many businesses worldwide. Johnson & Johnson previously reported results and trimmed billions off its revenue forecast.