After six months on the market, Biogen's new pill for multiple sclerosis hasn't performed as well as the company hoped.
Sold as Vumerity, the pill is supposed to be an improvement over Biogen's top drug Tecfidera, revenue from which totaled almost $2.3 billion during the first half of the year. But according to company leadership, the coronavirus pandemic created an obstacle that's been hard for Vumerity to overcome.
"We did not anticipate when we launched in December that three months down the road there would be COVID," Michel Vounatsos, Biogen's CEO, said on a call Wednesday while delivering a second quarter earnings report.
In the three-month period from April to June, Vumerity revenue totaled $9 million. And since the drug's launch, Biogen has recorded just $16 million. That performance starkly contrasts Biogen's other MS drugs — namely Tecfidera, Avonex and Tysabri, which each came close to or surpassed the billion-dollar revenue mark by June 30.
Typically, follow-on products offer some benefit their predecessor didn't. In the case of Vumerity and Tecfidera, which are both based on a compound called fumarate, Biogen says the newer drug is less damaging to patients' gastrointestinal tracts.
But follow-on products are also meant to extend how long a company can profit off a certain franchise or compound. As Vounatsos noted on the earnings call, Biogen's initial strategy with Vumerity was not to grow the brand by switching patients off Tecfidera, but rather using both drugs to carve out a larger share for fumarate-based drugs in the MS treatment market.
That strategy, though, has yet to prove out. Biogen recently came under more pressure to make sure it does, too, after a district court decided that a key patent which could protect Tecfidera from generic competition until 2028 is invalid.
"The most important life cycle management program that's been on the market for you, but has been a complete laggard, has been Vumerity," Evercore ISI analyst Umer Raffat said during Wednesday's earnings call. "Why is that?"
Vounatsos' explanation was that Vumerity wasn't able to gain traction on the market before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted its launch.
Specifically, he pointed to one major challenge being how the shutdowns affected meetings with prescribers. It's a problem other companies have faced as well. For example, Neurocrine Biosciences, another neuroscience-focused biotech, delayed the U.S. launch of a Parkinson's drug earlier this year due to coronavirus-related concerns.
"I share the disappointment for the performance to date on Vumerity," Vounatsos said.
"Having said that, now the entire focus is converting on Vumerity," he added. Vounatsos also claimed Biogen has "very good access" with payers — at close to 90% — and that the company will be devoting more resources toward the brand.