Pfizer hits bump on Prevnar 13 growth curve

Pfizer ($PFE) catapulted itself into the vaccine big leagues in 2009 by merging with Wyeth, and continued demand for Prevnar 13 has seen it consolidate its position. Analysts predict its sales could dwarf other vaccines--hitting $6.7 billion in 2018--but recent quarters suggest it will be a bumpy ride.

For the second time in three quarters sales of Prevnar 13 fell short of expectations. In the latest results Pfizer reported the timing of government purchases caused a 10% year-on-year drop in sales of the vaccine. The dip comes at a time when Pfizer is looking to Prevnar 13 to offset the devastating impact generic competition is having on sales of Lipitor. However, the rapid growth in sales that followed FDA approval flattened out last year. And this year has started on a low note.

Pfizer views the first quarter disappointment as a blip. "Our first quarter was impacted by some inventory differences ... that will probably even out as we go through the year," Pfizer specialty care general manager Geno Germano told investors. The downturn was partly offset by an area Pfizer hopes will take Prevnar to the next level--administration to adults. In January FDA cleared Pfizer to sell Prevnar to adults aged 50 years and older. Pfizer made some Prevnar sales to this demographic in the first quarter.

Expanded indications could further increase the might of Prevnar but would do nothing to end its dominance of Pfizer's vaccine business. Last year Prevnar 13 accounted for 90% of all vaccine sales at Pfizer. Success with developmental vaccines could lessen reliance on Prevnar 13. On a call to discuss results, Pfizer executives highlighted vaccines for protecting against meningitis B and Staphylococcus aureus as having particular potential.

Novartis ($NVS) has a meningitis B vaccine, Bexsero, approved in Europe, but a Staphylococcus aureus immunization has so far eluded the industry. In 2011 Merck ($MRK) nixed its late-phase trial amid safety fears. Merck had more success with its existing vaccine portfolio in the latest round of financial results though. Big quarters for Gardasil--up 37%--and Rotateq were vaccine highlights. Part of the Gardasil growth was driven by uptake among boys in the U.S.

- see Reuters' take on Pfizer
- read Pfizer's earnings transcript
- check out Merck's results