'This is performance': Bayer exec touts Eylea growth as pandemic ebbs. But where's Nubeqa?

Bayer expects prostate cancer drug Nubeqa to become one of its top 15 best-selling drugs in 2021. (Bayer)

Bayer can’t have it both ways. While eye drug Eylea enjoyed strong growth as COVID-19 ebbs, its consumer health franchise declined when compared with an “exceptionally strong” period a year ago during the early days of the pandemic.

Eylea brought in €671 million ($814 million) in first-quarter sales for Bayer, up 15.8% year over year at constant exchange rates. That’s compared with the drug’s flat performance 2020 as COVID-19 hurt the entire ophthalmology market.

To hear Bayer’s pharma chief Stefan Oelrich tell it, the significant growth was not the result of any stocking fluctuations. “This is performance,” he stressed on a conference call Wednesday.

Eylea has been expanding market share during COVID-19, and the trend continued into 2021, Oelrich said. During the first quarter, more patients received the medicine across Europe, China, Canada and Japan, Bayer said. The company’s marketing partner Regeneron last week reported a U.S. sales increase of 15% to $1.35 billion in the first quarter.

Despite Eylea’s sales uptick, Bayer’s overall pharma unit still failed to post sales growth during the quarter. That was partly thanks to a slowdown of the Johnson & Johnson-shared oral blood thinner Xarelto. That med posted only 6.5% revenue growth—versus 12.4% in 2020—as sales in Germany fell substantially during the first quarter, Bayer said.

RELATED: Regeneron's Eylea beats out the competition in the U.S. as patient demand picks back up

Looking forward, Bayer’s counting on new drugs to carry the pharma department once Eylea and Xarelto fall off the patent cliff. One such medicine is the prostate cancer drug Nubeqa.

Approved by the FDA in 2019, Nubeqa bears blockbuster hopes from within Bayer. But, as of the first quarter, the drug still hasn’t earned a place among Bayer’s top 15 best-selling pharma products. That means its sales were below Bayer radiotherapy Xofigo’s €65 million and far behind its in-class rivals, Pfizer and Astellas’ Xtandi and Johnson & Johnson’s Erleada.

Explaining the factors affecting the launch, Oelrich said the drug’s indication is currently limited to nonmetastatic disease. Plus, marketing obstacles tied to the pandemic have also hurt Bayer’s ability to spread the word.

While digital engagement has helped Bayer with initial uptake, now that the team is getting back with direct face-to-face customer contact, the company is optimistic about Nubeqa’s growth, Oelrich said. He expects Nubeqa to rise to the top 15 rank within this year.

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Elsewhere at the healthcare and crop sciences giant, Bayer's consumer health outfit suffered the most during the quarter. Sales from the portfolio declined 4.4% at constant currencies to €1.25 billion ($1.52 billion). Allergy and cold products plummeted by a whopping 30% thanks to ongoing high level of protective and hygiene measures in place.

Management also attributed the relative decline to an “exceptionally strong” prior-year quarter when consumer health sales jumped nearly 14% as people hoarded medicines at the beginning of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the German conglomerate continued making progress on resolving the mountain of litigation around weedkiller Roundup. About 96,000 claims are now covered by settlement agreements or didn’t meet eligibility criteria. As for future cases, the company recently reached a revised $2 billion deal with plaintiffs. A California judge is now scheduled to review the proposal next week.