Q1 Reports: Biogen, Merck and Other Biopharma Companies Note Ups and Downs Amid COVID-19 Pandemic


Numerous major global biopharma companies reported their quarterly earnings. Typically, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the companies, although not necessarily in a straightforward way. Many of the companies reported increased sales for the quarter as customers increased stockpiles and inventory in preparation for the pandemic, while other forms of sales and clinical trials were negatively impacted. Here’s a look.


For its first quarter, Biogen reported total revenues of $3.534 billion, a 1% increase compared to the first quarter of 2019. Multiple sclerosis (MS) revenues increased 9% compared to the prior year period, and Spinraza revenues for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) also increased 9% to $565 million. Biosimilars increased a whopping 25% to $219 million, while other revenues decreased 63% compared to the first year, primarily because of sales of its hemophilia inventory to Bioverativ in the first quarter of 2019.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a challenging situation for people and companies throughout the world, and Biogen personally felt the painful impact of this global crisis,” said Michel Vounatsos, Biogen’s chief executive officer. “During these challenging and unprecedented times, Biogen continued to deliver on its mission and purpose.”


Merck reported first-quarter sales of $21.1 billion globally, an increase of 11%. The company didn’t report an overall impact of COVID-19 to its revenue for the first quarter, although it’s projecting to take a $2.1 billion hit because of by the end of the year. Its health business in Asia Pacific, including China, did take a hit in the first quarter, but it was made up for by other markets, especially Europe, building inventory over concerns related to the pandemic.

The company noted, “Building on our experience with antivirals and vaccines, we have embarked upon a broad-based development program for SARS-CoV-2. Merck has teams of scientists researching COVID-19 and assessing our available antiviral candidates and vaccine assets for potential to impact COVID-19. With respect to vaccines, Merck has been thoughtful in selecting proven platforms that have in the past been used to generate vaccines with desirable qualities. We are in advanced discussions with multiple groups, focusing on three different viral vaccine platforms.”


Pfizer reported a 7% operational decline with $12 billion in first-quarter revenues. Minus the impact from Consumer Healthcare, revenues dropped 1% operationally for the quarter. At the beginning of the year, Upjohn began managing Pfizer’s Meridian subsidiary, the manufacture of EpiPen and other auto-injector products, as well as a pre-existing collaboration between Pfizer and Mylan for generic drugs in Japan. Pfizer is collaborating with German’s BioNTech on an mRNA vaccine program against COVID-19. They expect to jointly conduct clinical trials in the U.S. and Europe, with the trials to begin as early as this week.

“We are fully committed to confronting the public health challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic by collaborating with industry partners and academic institutions to develop potential approaches to prevent and treat COVID-19,” said Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chairman and chief executive officer. “Our researchers and scientists also have been exploring potential new uses of existing medicines in Pfizer’s portfolio to help infected patients. We aim to leave no stone unturned as we explore every option to help provide society with a treatment or vaccine.”


Novartis reported that its net sales for the quarter grew 13% with double digit growth in Innovative Medicines and Sandoz, its generics and biosimilars business. The key growth drivers were Entresto, with $569 million, a 62% growth; Zolgensma, with $170 million; Cosentyx showing 19% growth to $930 million; Kisquali rising 82% to $161 million; and Piqray hitting $74 million. Core operating income grew 34%.

The company is participating in collaborative research efforts such as the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, which is coordinated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome, and Mastercard, in addition to a directed partnership organized by the Innovative Medicines Initiative. It has also contributed several compounds from its libraries for testing by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Association.

“We continue to deliver our medicines to patients and advance our innovative pipeline as reflected in our strong operational performance in Q1,” said Vas Narasimhan, chief executive officer of Novartis. “While there are many uncertainties for the coming year, we are maintaining our full year outlook at this time and will continue to play our part to overcome the pandemic. Our response to the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates Novartis’ relentless commitment to our associates, patients, and the global community.”


Like most of the companies, the quarter was a mixed bag in relationship to the pandemic. The company noted the pandemic led to higher demand, partly because of inventory buildup and an increase in sales for some business units, but other areas were negatively impacted. Group sales in the first quarter of 2020 rose by 6% to 12.845 billion euros. Free cash flow was negative 793 million euros, attributable to the lower operating cash flow caused by changes in working capital, particularly in the Crop Science Division. However, the Crop Science’s sales of insecticides and fungicides increased by 5.7%. Sales of prescription drugs rose by 3.9% to 4.546 billion euros, but was impacted by new tender procedures in China and the spread of COVID-19. Sales of its anticoagulant Xarelto grew by 18.8% primarily due to higher volumes in Europe/Middle East/Africa related to the pandemic, with operational business also growing in China and Russia. Its pulmonary hypertension drug Adempas increased 26.%% mostly due to growth in the U.S.

“With our life science product portfolio in the areas of health and nutrition, we have shown our ability to successfully continue our business operations in a challenging environment and deliver a positive contribution for our stakeholders even during a time of crisis,” said Werner Baumann, chairman of the Board of Management.

Back to news