In crowded MS market, Merck KGaA's Mavenclad now offsets Rebif decline

Merck kgaa
Mavenclad racked up €89 million in third-quarter sales, with about a third coming from the U.S., ahead of Novartis' rival med Mayzent. (Merck KGaA)

The multiple sclerosis market has seen several successful new launches lately. And Merck KGaA’s Mavenclad could be counted as one so far.

Approved by the FDA in late March, Mavenclad racked up €89 million ($98 million) in third-quarter sales, with about a third coming from the U.S., Merck KGaA Chief Financial Officer Marcus Kuhnert told investors during a call Thursday.

The oral MS drug's haul grew a hefty 45% over the previous quarter, he said. And it proved enough to cover the loss from Merck's older-generation MS injection Rebif, whose sales in the third quarter dropped 15.1% year over year at unchanged currencies to €318 million ($350 million).

Kuhnert said Rebif's tumble falls in line with that of its peers in the interferon class, thanks to pressure from next-gen meds.

For Mavenclad, Merck has seen “a positive sales growth dynamic” in both the U.S. and Europe, he said. In Europe, where the drug was approved in August 2017, around 90% of Mavenclad patients are coming back in the second year, Kuhnert told investors.

Now, the German drugmaker expects Mavenclad’s 2019 full-year sales to hit €300 million.

RELATED: ECTRIMS: Joining Novartis and Roche in fight for MS shares, Merck KGaA touts Mavenclad data

Mavenclad is trying to carve its fair share out of the crowded MS market, and it's a tough task. Its competitors include Roche’s Ocrevus, dubbed the most successful launch in the Swiss drugmaker’s history. The drug picked up CHF 929 million ($939 million) sales during the third quarter alone.

Novartis’ Mayzent is a different story so far, though. It landed an approval days before Mavenclad, also bearing blockbuster hopes, but it only returned $4 million in third-quarter sales, way below the Street’s forecast of $10 million.

During a conference call a few weeks ago, CEO Vas Narasimhan attributed the slow ramp-up to a 90-day lag in getting patients onto paid scripts. Both Mayzent and Mavenclad are specifically approved to treat active secondary progressive MS, and Novartis is eyeing an EU nod for Mayzent this year.

“We have always said that the first 12 months with Mayzent would be about education,” Novartis’ pharma chief Marie-France Tschudin said on that call. “The challenges that [physicians] are not diagnosing SPMS, and that is because there’s been no effective therapies until now. So this means we need to change habits, and that takes time.”

RELATED: Biogen scores FDA nod for Tecfidera follow-up Vumerity as MS threats linger

Meanwhile, Biogen just nabbed an FDA nod for Vumerity, a follow-up to its blockbuster Tecfidera and a better-tolerated one than its predecessor. Despite the new entrants, Tecfidera’s sales in the third quarter only dropped 2% over the second quarter, reaching $1.12 billion. In a recent analysis of IQVIA prescription numbers, RBC Capital Markets analyst Brian Abrahams noted that Tecfidera erosion “appears negligible, suggesting reasonable resilience.”

Outside of neuroscience, Merck’s entire pharma business grew sales by 8% at unchanged foreign exchange rates, also thanks to its Pfizer-partnered PD-L1 Bavencio, which collected €29 million. Merck now expects the drug could reach €100 million this year.