Merck, Pfizer keep high-flying vaccine sales intact with key CDC backing

Merck and Pfizer faced uncertainty on big-selling vaccines going into this week’s meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a CDC panel that sets U.S. vaccination policy. But in votes on Wednesday, the panel either maintained favorable recommendations for the vaccines, or in Merck’s case, expanded recommendations. 

ACIP expanded its recommendation for Merck’s HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 to men and women aged 27 through 45 who aren’t adequately vaccinated. The panel had already recommended the shot for people up to age 26. 

In a note to clients, Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Louise Chen wrote that the vaccine has shown the best efficacy in younger people, and ACIP worried that an expanded recommendation “might draw vaccine supply away from young children and teenagers.” 

“However, the working group believes the safety profile and cancer prevention effectiveness outweigh the supply and demand issues,” she added.

RELATED: Merck quadruples Gardasil supply in China contract but still might not meet full demand

Gardasil has been a reliable franchise for Merck in recent years, with sales growing to $3.15 billion last year. Analysts see even more opportunity ahead; Chen, for her part, sees a $1.5 billion to $2.3 billion opportunity in China alone, where Merck is in the early stages of its launch. 

Outside of HPV, Pfizer and Merck both scored wins with ACIP’s pneumococcal vaccine recommendations. After concerns the committee wouldn’t support continued vaccination for people over 65, the panel instead kept its current recommendations in place. The CDC’s original backing for Pfizer’s Prevnar 13 in the age group helped the drugmaker grow the shot into the world’s bestselling vaccine, generating $5.8 billion last year. Merck also markets Pneumovax 23, which scored a recommendation.

RELATED: Racing with Merck, Pfizer wins FDA 'breakthrough' tag for 20-valent pneumococcal vaccine 

Looking ahead, the two companies could end up in a new head-to-head contest with their next-generation pneumococcal vaccines with billions of dollars at stake. Pfizer is developing its 20-valent follow-up to Prevnar 13, while Merck has a 15-valent vaccine in development.  

Chen’s team recently talked with two physicians who said they expect both vaccines will win approvals and ACIP recommendations. The duel will come down to patient preference and economics, the analyst wrote.