Merck's spending big to support Gardasil, and the HPV vaccine keeps pumping along

Merck & Co.’s immuno-oncology superstar Keytruda has been dominating headlines and sales rankings for the pharma giant, but it has another growth engine making waves around the world, too.

HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 has been pumping in recent years, and the trend continued in the second quarter. The shot posted 50% growth at constant exchange rates over last year’s second quarter to $886 million. And the company is gearing up to keep the shot's growth coming. 

It's true that Gardasil got a second-quarter boost from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vaccine purchases that happened during the first quarter of last year. But first-half sales—which Chief Commercial Officer Frank Clyburn called a more accurate comparison during Tuesday’s earnings call—came in 35% higher than in the same period last year. Not shabby at all.

What’s driving the performance? Merck is “seeing very strong demand” in 11- and 12-year-olds in the U.S. as well as in the 19-to-26 age group. Outside the U.S., there’s strong demand for the vaccine in China. In Europe, several countries are rolling out gender-neutral vaccination campaigns, boosting sales. 

Looking forward, the drugmaker is “very confident in our growth prospects for Gardasil,” he said. 

RELATED: Merck to build Gardasil 9 plant and add 425 jobs, but will cut 150 elsewhere 

Those prospects have been so strong that the company is spending more than a billion dollars on expanding capacity. Merck last week said it’s building a new plant in North Carolina to produce the vaccine, right on the heels of a plant expansion announcement in Virginia. Together on the two projects, the company is spending $1.68 billion and adding 525 jobs.

Elsewhere in the company’s vaccines portfolio, pediatric shots posted a strong quarter, growing 61% at constant exchange rates to $675 million. Demand grew in the private sector thanks to measles outbreaks in the U.S., Clyburn said. 

While Merck can count on international markets for long-term Gardasil growth, the company also recently got a boost in the U.S. Late last month, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices expanded its recommendation for Gardasil 9 to men and women aged 27 through 45 who aren’t adequately vaccinated. The panel had already recommended the shot for people up to age 26.