- Sales of vaccines for shingles, human papillomavirus and bacterial pneumonia slowed considerably over the first three months of the year, according to financial results disclosed this week by Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline.
- Both companies blamed the impact of COVID-19 on doctor's visits and routine vaccinations, citing lowered demand and disruption from public health guidance recommending against giving other shots within two weeks before and after coronavirus vaccination.
- Merck and GSK are two of the world's largest vaccine makers. Yet they've either fallen behind (in the case of GSK) or fallen out (in the case of Merck) of coronavirus vaccine development, leaving them without the financial boost that's lifted the businesses of Pfizer, Moderna and, to much lesser extent, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
Earlier this year, Pfizer and Moderna announced they expected sales and advance purchases of their authorized coronavirus vaccines would earn them, respectively, $15 billion and $18 billion this year — enormous sums, even for Pfizer.
The outlook is much different for Merck and GSK, which, contrary to expectations earlier in the pandemic, are no longer major players in the coronavirus vaccine market. After a late start last year, Merck bet on two vaccine candidates for COVID-19 only for both to underperform. The company has since shut down development.
GSK, which chose to support other coronavirus vaccine makers rather than develop its own, has also faced several setbacks. An effort with Sanofi was delayed after their first candidate wasn't as potent as expected, while a partnership with China's Clover Biopharmaceuticals was ended in February.
Lacking a coronavirus shot to support global immunization campaigns, Merck and GSK appear vulnerable to the business impact of ongoing coronavirus-related disruptions.
The sales impact attributed to COVID-19 in the first quarter appears much more pronounced than anytime last year, when sales of the two companies' top vaccines all rose. Coronavirus vaccinations, however, only began to ramp up in the U.S. in the opening months of this year.
Sales of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, one of Merck's top products, fell 20% in the three months from January to March, compared to the same period last year. Pneumovax, a smaller product by sales, did even worse, dropping 36%. Slower vaccine sales weighed on Merck's overall revenue, which was down 1%.
"Our vaccine portfolio was impacted by lower than normal wellness visits, particularly in the United States, along with headwinds related to the rollout of COVID vaccines in adults," said Frank Clyburn, head of Merck's human health business, on Thursday.
Going forward, the pharma expects a 3% negative impact on revenue due to COVID-19, although it kept its sales guidance for the year unchanged.
At GSK, sales of the top-selling shingles vaccine Shingrix were down by almost half, dragging heavily on the British drugmaker's overall vaccine business.
"The prioritization of the public health systems to focus on pandemic vaccination deployment has led to significant disruption in Shingrix prescriptions," said Luke Miels, GlaxoSmithKline's head of pharmaceuticals, on a Wednesday conference call.
"This has been most in evidence in the U.S. where the CDC has recommended a 14-day window on either side of receiving COVID vaccines, effectively creating a two-month no-go period for administration of other vaccines," he added.
Miels noted GSK has seen similar disruptions in other markets like Germany and China.
On Wednesday's call, analysts questioned whether COVID-19 booster shots, expected to be needed about a year after primary vaccination, would have a similar effect. Miels was more optimistic, however, alluding to research testing co-administration of Shingrix with coronavirus vaccines.
One exception to the experience of Merck and GSK is Sanofi. Vaccine sales at the French drugmaker were up 5% in the first quarter, although the company noted lower sales of travel vaccines and adult booster shots due to COVID-19.