Roche's Ocrevus is one of the best MS launches ever, but Tecentriq in I-O? Not so much

Roche
Roche generated CHF 13.6 billion in the first quarter, a 6% increase at constant exchange rates. (Roche)

Don't worry about biosimilars, Roche says. Our new drugs will have it handled. In fact, we're in the middle of one of the most successful multiple sclerosis launches ever. 

That was the essential message from the Swiss drugmaker's executives Thursday as they reported first-quarter results. Ocrevus, Roche's MS injection approved in the U.S. last year, hauled in 479 million Swiss francs ($486 million), and that performance ranks Ocrevus among the industry's best in multiple sclerosis, Roche's pharmaceutical head Daniel O'Day bragged.

For comparison, Biogen's mega-successful MS med Tecfidera reeled in $506 million in quarterly sales at about the same point in its rollout. 

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Good news for Roche. Not so good: Tecentriq sales, which "stalled" in the quarter, as characterized by Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson. The immuno-oncology drug—which competes in the hot PD-1/L1 field against Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo and Merck & Co.'s Keytruda—generated 139 million francs ($141 million) in Q1, essentially no better than its turnout in the fourth quarter.

RELATED: Roche's much-anticipated MS game-changer, Ocrevus, nabs its FDA green light 

Tecentriq hit the market third, after Opdivo and Keytruda, and its sales are a very distant third. Opdivo by itself brought in $1.5 billion in the first quarter. Merck hasn't reported its Q1 numbers yet, but Keytruda delivered $1.3 billion in last year's Q4. Roche is planning several filings for new indications and has some key phase 3 data coming later this year, all of which could help Tecentriq shift into higher gear.

Ocrevus, on the other hand, was the first MS drug ever approved to treat primary progressive disease in addition to the more common relapsing-remitting MS. The drug's 7% market share after three quarters on sale is a "reflection of the value that patients and physicians are experiencing with this medicine," O'Day said.

Roche's pricing and access strategies are part of the equation, too; the pharma chief said those moves are expected to deliver good uptake in markets outside the U.S. For Q1, U.S. sales amounted to 443 million francs, just 46 million francs shy of the total.

RELATED: Merck KGaA disses Ocrevus-Rebif price comparison as 'misleading and oversimplified' 

Those strategies included Ocrevus' launch sticker. In the U.S., Roche priced its drug at a 25% discount to Merck KGaA's Rebif, a longtime standard therapy and the drug Ocrevus beat out in its own clinical trials, a spokesperson told FiercePharma at the time. A Merck KGaA respresentative called the comparison "misleading and oversimplified" because payers cover Ocrevus as a "medical benefit," and therefore it's not subject to the rebates and discounts drugmakers cough up on retail drugs such as Rebif. 

Meanwhile, Roche continues to suffer biosim erosion in Europe, with more on the way there and in the key U.S. market. In the first quarter, MabThera and Rituxan slipped 44% in Europe and 11% in Japan. Roche expects Rituxan competition in the U.S. later this year.

RELATED: The top 15 drug patent expirations of 2018 - Rituxan 

But considering the "momentum and trajectory" of new launches—which now have annualized sales of 2 billion francs—O'Day said Roche feels confident it can offset biosim competition. In fact, O'Day said savings from biosims help "create oxygen for the growth of our new meds that need to be funded by the same healthcare systems." 

Overall, Roche sales grew 6% in the first quarter at constant exchange rates to 13.6 billion francs ($13.86 billion). With the performance, the company raised its guidance slightly; it's now expecting low-single digit growth, compared to previous guidance of stable to low-single digit growth.