Despite high-flying Gardasil sales, Merck executives see 'significant' opportunity ahead

Merck executives see Gardasil 9 as a growth driver for future years. (Merck)

When Merck reported second-quarter results last week, many pharma watchers tuned in to the fact that its blockbuster cancer fighter Keytruda finally passed market rival Opdivo in quarterly sales. Meanwhile, the company's big-selling HPV shot, Gardasil, continued to gain steam, and executives see "significant" opportunity for growth ahead for the vaccine.

In the second quarter, Gardasil sales grew 26% at constant currencies to $608 million, leading a vaccine franchise that chipped in more than $1.5 billion for the pharma giant. Gardasil should continue on its upward trajectory as well, executives figure. On a conference call Friday, Merck president of global human health Adam Schechter said growth prospects around the vaccine are still "very significant" in both the short and long term, citing opportunities including in the U.S. and China.

Outside of Gardasil, second-quarter sales for pneumococcal shot Pneumovax 23 were up 15% to $193 million, while RotaTeq revenues jumped 26% to $156 million. Even with those performances, shingles vaccine Zostavax dragged on the unit during the period. GlaxoSmithKline launched a rival vaccine last year that's stealing market share, and Zostavax sales have since crashed. For the quarter, Zostavax sales fell 74% to $44 million.

Looking ahead, Merck's leadership sees vaccines as a big part of the company's future. Aside from marketed shots, the company is testing its next-gen pneumococcal shot against Pfizer's megablockbuster Prevnar 13. Merck launched a phase 3 head-to-head trial against Pfizer's vaccine in April and is hoping to steal share in a multibillion-dollar market. 

RELATED: Merck pits its pneumococcal shot against Pfizer's mammoth Prevnar in head-to-head phase 3

Asked on Friday how he predicts the field will play out in future years, Merck R&D head Roger Perlmutter, M.D., Ph.D., said he believes there will be a need for multiple vaccines. Pfizer, for its part, is working on a 20-valent vaccine in midstage testing.

Perlmutter also took the chance on Friday's call to praise the company's efforts in Ebola after health officials used Merck's late-stage vaccine against a recent outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said Merck is progressing toward registration for the vaccine.

RELATED: Gardasil grows, Zostavax struggles as Merck posts $6.5B in 2017 vaccine sales

As of Monday, only Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have reported second-quarter results among the big vaccine players. Last week, Glaxo reported vaccine sales of £1.3 billion ($1.7 billion), propelled by hotshot shingles launch Shingrix. Pfizer and Sanofi are set to report their results on Tuesday.