Pfizer and Regeneron led pharma's sales growth in Q4 while Teva, Biogen and Gilead lagged

Rebounding from a pandemic-riddled 2020 was a likely outcome for the pharmaceutical industry in 2021. But the depth of the bounce back was particularly marked.

It wasn’t unexpected that companies selling highly successful COVID-19 vaccines and antibodies—such as Pfizer and Regeneron—saw more than a 100% increase in revenue from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the same period in 2021.

But eight other companies posted double-digit growth in the quarter, led by AstraZeneca, which grew sales 63% during the period. While its COVID-19 vaccine sales accounted for a significant chunk ($1.76 billion) of AZ’s $12.01 billion in revenue for the quarter, much of the gain was driven by “exceptional pipeline and commercial delivery,” the company said. Five of the company’s drugs crossed the blockbuster threshold in 2021.

AZ’s acquisition of Alexion—which closed last July—also fueled the surge. In the second quarter of 2021, before completion of the purchase, AZ’s revenue was up 27% over the same period of 2020.

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One company whose revenue growth had nothing to do with COVID-19 vaccines or treatments was Vertex. While the Boston-based firm posted a full-year revenue increase of 22%, its increase for the fourth quarter came in at 27%, indicating that the growth surge is gaining momentum thanks to its strong position in cystic fibrosis.

Meanwhile, as Merck faces questions over its long-term growth prospects, the company's 24% growth figure in the fourth quarter shows that the company is getting it done in the short term. Some of that bump came from sales of its COVID-19 pill monupiravir, which generated $952 million in revenue. The company projects to the drug will deliver more than $5 billion in 2022 revenues.

The changing winds of the pandemic altered revenue figures in 2021 for several companies that have supplied COVID vaccines and treatments. Johnson & Johnson, for example, saw just a 10% increase in the fourth quarter as its COVID-19 vaccine has fallen out of favor in wealthy countries like the U.S. In the second quarter, the company's sales were up 23%. 

Another company whose revenues have fluctuated with the pandemic is Eli Lilly, whose figures have been up and down depending on demand for its antibody treatments. After a 23% increase year over year in the second quarter, Lilly had just an 8% bump year over year in the fourth quarter.

While many Big Pharma players are generating growth, some companies are struggling to tread water. 

Gilead’s sales were down 2% year over year for the fourth quarter despite a healthy boost from COVID antiviral Veklury, which generated $1.4 billion. The primary reason for the decrease was the $1.9 billion in sales that Veklury produced in the fourth quarter of 2020 when the drug first hit the market.

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The two companies on the lowest rung of the revenue trend ladder—Teva and Biogen—have credited their decreased revenue to problems that garnered much attention. Teva, down 8% year over year in the fourth quarter, is battling Copaxone copycat and generic pricing pressure. Biogen, down 4% in the fourth quarter, has not yet gotten a lift from its controversial Alzheimer’s disease treatment, Aduhelm.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is Pfizer, which was (PDF) up 106%, in the quarter credited to $12.5 billion in vaccine sales in the period compared to $154 million in the same quarter last year. The increase came despite a 2% drop in sales of non-COVID products.

Edward Jones analyst Ashtyn Evans believes (PDF) the infusion of cash will boost the company's future.

"While we expect COVID-19-related sales to decline over time, the products are giving Pfizer a significant cash boost to invest in innovation, make acquisitions and return cash to shareholders,” Jones wrote. “Through a series of recent transactions, Pfizer has become a smaller company, focused on developing innovative drugs. We believe the remaining Pfizer business will be able to grow earnings at a higher rate because new drugs will have a bigger impact on the company.”