Johnson & Johnson's immunology, cancer blockbusters deliver Q3 growth—and fuel hopes for 2021

Some still see the doctor's office as a no-go zone as the coronavirus continues to circulate, and clinical trials have endured plenty of pandemic-related speed bumps. Neither of those things is good for a drugmaker.

But Johnson & Johnson managed to beat the market on pharma growth in the third quarter—and with new launches still on their way and newer meds pumping out sales, the company feels even better about 2021.

Seven of the company’s branded pharmaceuticals—Erleada, Darzalex, Imbruvica, Stelara, Tremfya, Opsumit and Uptravi—grew at double-digit percentages in Q3. Stelara and Tremfya led the immunology portfolio, which altogether pulled in $3.8 billion and ranked as the company's largest franchise. Stelara itself generated nearly $2 billion during the quarter.

And J&J envisions a bigger 2021 for that lineup. Uptake for Stelara in ulcerative colitis and Tremfya in psoriatic arthritis will help keep its immunology franchise humming next year, CFO Joe Wolk said during a Tuesday call with analysts.

Meanwhile, cancer drugs—including Erleada for prostate cancer, and Darzalex and Imbruvica for a variety of blood cancers—generated $3.1 billion. Plus, the drugmaker is planning filings for its BCMA CAR-T drug in multiple myeloma and amivantamab in non-small cell lung cancer in the “near term," Wolk said.

All wasn't rosy in the lineup, however: Six branded meds posted sales declines versus the same period last year. Big-selling drugs Remicade and Zytiga, Erleada's predecessor, continue to suffer from generic and biosimilar competition.

RELATED: How is COVID-19 affecting drugmakers? J&J execs offer some early clues

And the quarter wasn't without its challenges. Many people remain “cautious” about going to doctors' offices, and the reduction in visits means fewer diagnoses and new patient starts on medicines. But Wolk said he expects visits to increase as vaccines launch and therapeutics become more available.

During the first 9 months of 2020, J&J’s pharma outfit generated $33.3 billion in global sales, a 5.2% increase from the same period last year. Overall in 2021, the company expects “solid volume-driven above market growth" from its pharma business, Wolk said.

Pricing pressure could factor into the equation next year, though. If U.S. unemployment remains high, fewer patients will be on commercial insurance, which pays a higher price for drugs. Plus, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden have both pledged to make changes to drug pricing, and the attention to the subject will presumably continue after next month's election.

Still, J&J’s pharma “growth is all based on volume, not price,” pharmaceuticals chairman Jennifer Taubert said on the call. 

RELATED: J&J hits pause on COVID-19 vaccine trial for 'unexplained illness' 

Aside from the company’s financial performance, the big news for J&J so far this week was the company’s COVID-19 vaccine trial halt due to an unexplained illness. The company didn’t know whether the trial participant had received vaccine or placebo, and Janssen head of R&D Mathai Mammen said Tuesday that such a pause is “not at all unusual” during large trials.  

The pause doesn’t change J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing plans “at all,” he added. The company still plans to complete enrollment for the 60,000-person trial in 2 or 3 months.

Also with its financial results, J&J disclosed that it's adding $1 billion to its comprehensive opioid settlement, bringing the company's total to $5 billion.