Duo no more: After M&A spree, Pfizer parts ways with Merck KGaA on Bavencio

As Pfizer’s pharmaceutical empire grows with its shiny new acquisitions, the company is letting go of a past prize and yearslong partnership on cancer drug Bavencio.

Going forward, Merck KGaA will have sole ownership of the PD-L1 antibody as the duo have decided to end their nine-year partnership. The rights transfer will officially go through on June 30. After that, Merck will handle global commercialization of the drug and give Pfizer a 15% royalty on net sales.

The two will continue with their ongoing Bavencio trials, but Merck will conduct future research. The German pharma already handles all manufacturing and supply chain management for the drug, which it originally discovered.

The companies' mutual decision was based on Merck KGaA’s “long-held interest” to reacquire the exclusive rights, a Pfizer spokesperson told Fierce Pharma in an emailed statement. The two concluded that patients would be “best served by a single entity-focused commercialization approach versus one based on a partnership,” the spokesperson added.

“This has been an incredible journey for us,” Merck KGaA’s CEO Belén Garijo said in a release. The chief exec went on to note that “thanks to Pfizer’s partnership,” the company is now “very well positioned” to continue getting the cancer drug to patients.

The two companies came together in 2014 in a “global strategic alliance” to speed up the drug's development and give both companies an oncology boost. 

It was a fruitful deal for Merck, as Pfizer paid $850 million upfront plus up to $2 billion in milestones to get access to the medicine. Since then, the drug has taken off as a standard-of-care for first-line maintenance treatment for locally advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma who are progression-free following platinum-based chemotherapy, Merck said in the release.

While it has collected a few other cancer approvals, Bavencio has also stumbled in some cases.  For instance, the drug in 2019 flopped a study testing its use as a maintenance treatment in patients with gastric cancer who've tried one round of chemo. In 2020, it couldn't beat out placebo in a head and neck cancer trial.

For Pfizer, exiting Bavencio comes at a busy time. Earlier this month, the behemoth snapped up cancer specialist Seagen for $43 billion in the largest biopharma acquisition since AbbVie’s 2019 $63 billion deal for Allergan. Pfizer expects Seagen’s products to bring in $10 billion by 2030, the company said at the time.

Before that, Pfizer bought out Global Blood Therapeutics and its sickle cell disease med Oxbryta for $5.4 billion. And before that, the hungry pharma shelled out $11.6 billion on Biohaven Pharma’s CGRP inhibitor portfolio, which includes growing migraine drug Nurtec.