BioNTech trumpets strong sales, but pandemic 'uncertainty' still suggests a decline in 2022

Omicron-fueled vaccine orders propelled Pfizer’s COVID-19 partner BioNTech to record sales in 2022’s first quarter, but the German mRNA specialist still expects sales to fall this year compared with 2021. Chalk it up to the uncertainty of the pandemic’s trajectory and now, a war in Ukraine, BioNTech executives said on a call with analysts.

Despite a strong start to the year, the company must "acknowledge the uncertainty derived from the course of the pandemic and the political uncertainties of recent months,” Jens Holstein, BioNTech’s chief financial officer, said Monday.

With orders booked for roughly 2.4 billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in 2022, BioNTech expects to pull in between 13 billion euros ($13.68 billion) and 17 billion euros ($17.89 billion) for the full year. The company invoiced roughly 750 million doses during the first three months of 2022, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin added on the call.

That projected sales haul is nothing to sneeze at in the biopharma world, but it does represent a decline from the nearly 19 billion euros BioNTech reaped in 2021. BioNTech’s arguably conservative 2022 guidance reflects industry-wide uncertainty around pandemic sales prospects in the coming months and years.

Johnson & Johnson last month said it was suspending sales guidance on its shot, which it credited to “challenged” market demand for “all COVID-19 vaccines” thanks to a “global supply surplus and vaccine hesitancy in developing markets.” The FDA recently restricted its authorization for the shot, delivering another blow to the program.

AstraZeneca, for its part, recently said it expects sales of its own COVID shot, Vaxzevira, to wind down in the back half of 2022. The British drugmaker is counting on its long-acting antibody combo Evusheld to pick up the COVID-19 revenue slack.

AZ’s production partner Serum Institute of India, meanwhile, stopped making new COVID-19 vaccines in December after amassing a stockpile of about 200 million doses, CEO Adar Poonawalla said earlier this year at the India Economic Conclave, as quoted by Bloomberg.

Similarly, Johnson & Johnson’s South African manufacturing ally Aspen Pharmacare has also warned of weak demand, with CEO Stephen Saad telling Reuters, “there is going to be a place for boosters … but it is not at the volumes you had before.”

Analysts, too, are split on pandemic sales outlooks for the remainder of the year. “It’s too early to call,” Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Louise Chen wrote to clients in April after J&J suspended its vaccine sales guidance. “It does look like the phasing of vaccine sales this year could be back-end loaded,” she added.

Her team suggested market leader Pfizer is “best positioned” to adapt its shot to new strains of the virus and future recommendations that could arise as a result.

“We expect more focused discussions to take place on the need/framework for additional booster doses ahead of a potential fall/winter surge,” the Cantor team added.

All told, BioNTech generated 6.4 billion euros (about $6.7 billion) in 2022’s first quarter. That sum beat analyst expectations and more than tripled the amount BioNTech pulled for the same period in 2021, Financial Times points out.

BioNTech enjoyed a big sales boost as countries late last year booked vaccine orders to combat the emerging omicron variant, executives said on the company's call.

As for other COVID-19 vaccine business stabilizers on the horizon, BioNTech in March inked a pandemic preparedness contract with Germany. Discussions on similar contracts with other countries are “underway,” Ryan Richardson, BioNTech’s chief strategy officer, said on the company’s earnings call.

Boosters could also form a cornerstone of BioNTech’s vaccine business in the coming months. The company is awaiting a readout on a three-dose regimen of its shot in kids between the ages of six months and five years old, which should arrive in the “coming weeks,” Richardson said. The company is also weighing a fourth dose in adults ages 16 and up and plans to share safety and immunogenicity data on its omicron-adapted bivalent shot, also in the coming weeks, Richardson added.

Still, BioNTech knows COVID-19 isn’t going to line its coffers forever. BioNTech is pumping 1.4 billion euros to 1.5 billion euros into research and development this year as it invests in its broader mission, which includes creating breakthrough cancer meds.