Merck, GSK and Pfizer vaccines get a boost as CDC lifts 2-week restriction on pandemic shots

As revenues for several Big Pharma players slumped to start the year, execs blamed part of the problem on the accelerating COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had recommended people don't get another shot within two weeks of their COVID-19 vaccine, hitting sales for key products.

Now, the CDC is doing away with that suggestion entirely in an effort to boost routine immunizations among teens. The move could spell financial rewards for leading vaccine companies such as Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.

During the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meeting on Wednesday, experts endorsed the COVID-19 shot from Pfizer and BioNTech in adolescents aged 12 to 15 and additionally tossed out the agency's two-week restriction on administering other vaccines.

Under the previous guidance, coadministration was only allowed in emergency situations, such as a tetanus vaccine for after wound management, or to vaccinate residents of long-term care facilities to avoid COVID-19 vaccination delays. Now, COVID-19 vaccines may be administered with other shots during the same visit to a doctor.

Given the “substantial” safety information surrounding all pandemic shots under emergency authorization so far, as well as previous experience that shows immunogenicity and adverse event profiles are similar when shots are administered together, the CDC decided coadministration “may facilitate catch up vaccination.”

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While intended to recover lagging immunization schedules, the move will likely create a windfall for pharma companies that blamed the COVID-19 vaccine rollout for disappointing sales for their other vaccines during the first part of the year. Many expected sales to rebound at some point in the second half of 2021 once people finish their pandemic shot cycle.

During the first quarter, sales of GlaxoSmithKline’s blockbuster shingles vaccine Shingrix slid nearly 50% compared with the same quarter last year, according to the company’s earnings presented in April. The decision to prioritize pandemic vaccination “led to significant disruption in Shingrix prescriptions,” Luke Miels, GSK’s president of pharmaceutical, told analysts on a conference call. 

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Meanwhile, sales of Merck’s HPV vaccine Gardasil fell 16% to $917 million during the first quarter, while revenues for its polysaccharide pneumococcal vaccine Pneumovax 23 dropped 33% to $171 million. Merck execs also cited the two-week buffer for the declines. 

Even Pfizer has had to face headwinds against the vaccine it created. While its COVID-19 shot skyrockets, revenues for the drugmaker's pneumococcal vaccine Prevnar 13, which has long been the world's bestselling vaccine, fell 11% to $1.28 billion during the first three months of the year. 

Since the most widely deployed COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses spread weeks apart, drugmakers had warned that immunizations for other diseases could be delayed by several months under the CDC's prior recommendation.