Merck KGaA's new CEO shakes up U.S. leadership to spark sales of promising drugs

New Merck KGaA logo in front of company building
Germany-based Merck KGaA saw an 8.6% increase in sales in 2020 and looks for even more success with reorganization of its healthcare unit in North America as it tries to spur sales of Mavenclad, Bavencio and Tepmetko. (Fierce Pharma)

Belen Garijo took over last month as CEO at Merck KGaA and she’s not wasting time putting her imprint on the company.

On Tuesday, the Germany-based company said it had tapped Chris Round as president at its North America healthcare unit, replacing Andrew Patterson, who'll step into the brand-new role of chief marketing officer.

By beefing up its leadership in the United States, Merck aims to help EMD Serono cash in with three promising drugs––its Pfizer-partnered immuno-oncology drug Bavencio, multiple sclerosis treatment Mavenclad and Tepmetko for non-small cell lung cancer.

“Our redesigned healthcare organization creates dedicated leadership for our strategic priorities with a focus on growth,” said Merck’s healthcare CEO Peter Guenter.

RELATED: Merck KGaA names Garijo CEO, punching another hole in biopharma’s glass ceiling

Guenter himself is part of the new wave of leaders at Merck KGaA. The former CEO at Spanish pharma Almirall arrived last fall to fill Garijo’s slot when she was bumped up to the top job to replace Stefan Oschmann after five years as CEO.

Another quick move by Garijo was to lure Matthias Heinzel from DuPont to become CEO of Millipore Sigma, Merck’s life sciences business in North America.  

As president of EMD Serono, Round will be based in Rockland, Massachusetts. He served for 20 years at Merck & Co. before arriving at Merck KGaA in 2017 to head up commercial operations in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. 

Patterson, who brings nearly 30 years of biopharmaceutical experience to the job, will lead the company's specialty franchises––oncology, neurology, immunology and fertility.

“Given the priority of North America as a driver of future growth for the healthcare business sector of Merck KGaA, dedicated leadership in this key market is essential,” the company said in its release.

Earlier this year the company reported net sales of $17.5 billion for 2020, an increase of 8.6%. Merck expects an even bigger bump this year as products used to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines and treatments deliver a twofold sales increase.

Over the last 12 months, Merck has invested $461 million to meet demand for single-use assemblies and filtration. 

In North America, sales companywide were up 9.7%. But Merck sees much more potential for growth. Mavenclad sales grew by 71% worldwide last year, with MS patients showing a preference for the tablet form of the drug. Merck sees Mavenclad as a replacement for its aging MS blockbuster Rebif, which remained the company’s top seller last year despite a 9% drop in sales.

RELATED: Merck KGaA matches Novartis with FDA green light for targeted lung cancer drug Tepmetko 

Bavencio, which has won four FDA approvals since 2017, saw a 57% increase in sales in 2020, but it's still fighting a come-from-behind fight against the leaders in the PD-1/L1 field, Merck & Co.'s Keytuda and Bristol Myers Squibb's Opdivo. 

Tepmetko, a MET inhibitor for lung cancer that won its first FDA approval in February of this year, is also an oral treatment that the company believes will win favor with patients as it battles Novartis’ Tabrecta.