Roche gets a boost from COVID-19 drug Actemra, but Ocrevus lags as patients prep for boosters

Roche
Roche's pharma chief Bill Anderson labeled Tecentriq’s potential launch trajectory in adjuvant non-small cell lung cancer as “baby bear’s porridge,” indicating a modest sales ramp-up. (Roche)

COVID-19 is fueling the growth of a repurposed Roche immunology drug while it hurts the Swiss pharma’s top-selling med.

Rheumatoid arthritis therapy Actemra has become Roche pharma’s second-largest product by quarterly sales thanks to an FDA emergency use authorization for hospitalized COVID-19 patients in late June and a subsequent World Health Organization recommendation.

Partly benefiting from a global surge in cases related to the Delta variant, Actemra’s third-quarter sales jumped 57% year-over-year at unchanged exchange rates to CHF 1.05 billion ($1.14 billion), beating Wall Street expectations by 35%.

Actemra’s impressive showing comes in contrast to the lackluster performance of multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus, which remains Roche’s top-selling med. Ocrevus posted third-quarter sales of CHF 1.28 billion ($1.39 billion), up 7% year-over-year at constant currencies, marking the first time that growth from the anti-CD20 antibody came in below 10%.

Roche’s pharma chief Bill Anderson attributed the Ocrevus slowdown to MS patients delaying treatments to prepare for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. Patients on Ocrevus don’t mount a robust antibody response with COVID-19 vaccination because of the drug’s B cell-depleting mechanism.

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Ocrevus’ share of new and switching patients in the U.S. market remains strong at around 35%, with about 45% of Ocrevus starters being new to an MS treatment, Anderson told investors during a call Wednesday.

Actemra displaced HER2 breast cancer drug Perjeta on Roche pharma’s product ranking. Perjeta’s third-quarter sales, at CHF 1.01 billion ($1.1 billion), came in 5% below analysts’ estimates. Newly launched Phesgo, a fixed combo of Perjeta and Herceptin, cannibalized Perjeta, Anderson said.

Looking forward, Roche’s oncology portfolio could soon see a major boost from antibody-drug conjugate Polivy in newly diagnosed diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Roche recently reported that a Polivy combo regimen topped the current standard of care at staving off cancer progression or death. Jefferies analysts recently said Polivy could reap $2.1 billion in peak annual sales from the front-line use. In the third quarter, the ADC’s med brought in sales of CHF 73 million ($79 million).

RELATED: Roche's Polivy to hit $2.4B as doctors expect 'significant switching' in newly diagnosed lymphoma: analyst

Remarking on the recent data drop, Anderson said the findings were “well beyond what would been seen as a minimum” to drive a shift in practice and establish a new standard of care. The company plans to present detailed data from the phase 3 Polarix trial at the upcoming American Society of Hematology annual meeting.

Elsewhere in Roche’s oncology portfolio, PD-L1 inhibitor Tecentriq grew sales by 23% at constant currencies to CHF 878 million ($954 million). The drug just got what industry watchers view as a broad label for post-surgery treatment of stage 2 to 3A non-small cell lung cancer that expresses the PD-L1 biomarker. The drug’s benefit in the PD-L1-low population has come under question, and physicians have suggested they would wait for more mature life-extension data before incorporating immunotherapy in the adjuvant NSCLC setting.

Anderson labeled Tecentriq’s potential launch trajectory in the area as “baby bear’s porridge,” referencing the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Roche pharma chief acknowledged that the penetration in PD-L1-high population may be faster. Overall, “it’ll be a good uptake, but probably won’t happen in one day,” he said.

Meanwhile, biosimilars to Avastin, Herceptin and Rituxan continued doing damage. For the first nine months, biosimilars together dealt a CHF 3.96 billion ($4.3 billion) blow to Roche’s top-line.

All told, Roche’s pharma department enjoyed a 5% year-over-year growth in the third quarter to CHF 11.7 billion ($12.72 billion) in sales. Thanks also to the contribution from COVID diagnostics, the entire Roche group’s sales increased 9% to $16 billion. As a result, Roche is dialing up its full-year outlook to mid-single-digit group sales growth.