Pfizer pulls off Q1 surprise with strong sales even as COVID vaccine demand plummets

With analysts expecting a free-fall in sales from COVID products, Pfizer pulled off a surprise Tuesday morning with its first-quarter earnings report.

Revenue for the period came in at $18.3 billion, routing the analyst consensus of $16.6 billion. With the performance, Pfizer reaffirmed its expectations for 2023 revenue to fall between $67 billion and $71 billion.

Maintaining the full-year guidance after the impressive first-quarter performance was "disappointing but understandable," Third Bridge analyst Lee Brown said in a note. 

The company also stuck with its sales projections for its COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty at $13.5 billion and oral antiviral COVID treatment Paxlovid at $8 billion.

Still, Pfizer reminded analysts that its financial guidance for the year is based on “assumptions that are subject to significant uncertainties" around pandemic-related demand."

Paxlovid sales for the first quarter came in at $4.1 billion, which far exceeded Wall Street's expectation of $2.7 billion. The result also was a $2.8 billion increase from the same period in 2022. Pfizer chalked up the performance to strong demand in China and to new launches in other international markets.

Meanwhile, sales of Comirnaty totaled $3.1 billion, a 77% decrease from $13.2 billion in the same period last year. Despite the decline, the first-quarter haul still exceeded analyst expectations of $2.6 billion.

The strong showing by Pfizer’s COVID products compensated for a quarter in which its “core business disappointed,” Wells Fargo analyst Mohit Bansal said in a note to clients, as quoted by Bloomberg.

During a conference call, Pfizer's chief fiinancial officer David Denton said the company expects sales of COVID products to become more seasonal.

"We expect to see significantly lower sales contributions from our products in the second quarter versus the first quarter," Denton said. "In fact, given the anticipated timing of approvals for a fall vaccine with a strain change, we would expect to see more substantial backstream deliveries starting in September, which is late in the U.S. third quarter."

Another factor adding variability will be the commercialization of COVID products later this year. Paxlovid makes the move in the U.S. in the second half but provided no hint on the price it expects to charge.

"It's too early for me to share the price of Paxlovid," Angela Hwang, Pfizer's cheif commercial officer, said. "The price ranges that we have brought to our payers, together with the value arguments that we have been able to develop through robust real-world evidence from the number of hospitalizations, the number of deaths that we've been able to avert through the treatment of Paxlovid is very much supportive of the pricing ranges that we're talking about."  

Riding the wave of pandemic-related demand last year, Pfizer topped the worldwide pharmaceutical industry in sales, generating more than $100 billion in global revenues.