This week, the world's four largest vaccine makers each reported hits to their vaccine businesses from the coronavirus pandemic, as public health measures kept people away from their doctor's offices.
Second quarter sales of Pfizer's Prevnar 13 pneumococcal vaccine fell 5% compared to last year, while Merck & Co. saw a 26% decline for its Gardasil HPV vaccine.
French pharma Sanofi recorded a 7% overall decline in vaccine sales, in spite of its polio and influenza products sporting double-digit growth. The impact was more universal for U.K.-based GlaxoSmithKline, which had lower sales in every part of its vaccines division. So-called established vaccines dropped 34%, while Shingrix — a shingles vaccine that's become a key source of revenue for the company — experienced an unprecedented 16% dip.
Declining vaccine sales were to be expected. Earlier in the pandemic, companies warned that shelter-in-place orders and the fears of contracting the virus from doctors' offices were likely to result in lower vaccine demand for a portion — if not all — of 2020.
Now, however, the big vaccine makers are cautiously optimistic that they're past the brunt of the pandemic. Sanofi executives said they expect record flu vaccine sales in the Northern Hemisphere this fall, whereas GSK said pediatric vaccinations rebounded considerably in recent weeks.
"We expect to see vaccination rates recover in the second half of the year," Emma Walmsley, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, said on an earnings call Wednesday.
"We're confident it will come," Walmsley added, "but clearly, there remains a degree of risk on the exact timing."
A considerable amount of risk comes from uncertainties surrounding the largest pharmaceutical market, the U.S., which has struggled more than any other developed nation to check the coronavirus. As of July 30, the virus had infected at least 4.4 million people in the country and killed more than 150,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"There's a clear difference when you look at the U.S. and Europe," Luke Meils, GSK's head of pharmaceuticals, said on the earnings call, noting how most of GSK's European vaccine business is in pediatrics.
He explained that, in the states, pediatric vaccinations across the industry dropped about 50% over a four-week period from March to April. But by early May, they were quickly rising, as were wellness visits to doctors. Meanwhile, adult vaccinations in the U.S. faced a similar drop but have been "slower to recover."
For Merck, Gardasil sales in the U.S. fell by nearly two-thirds, a significant drop that executives attributed to reduced access to providers.
Sanofi's earnings report reflects a similar challenge in the U.S., where the company's vaccines brought in 41% lower sales than in the second quarter of 2019. The sales hit was less severe in Europe, at 22%. Sanofi vaccine sales in the rest of the world were up 20%, helping offset the declines elsewhere.
Though the second quarter was tough, Sanofi predicts its flu vaccines will have strong performances in the third and fourth quarter. The company's off to a good start, according to head of vaccines Thomas Triomphe, who said Wednesday that its first shipments of U.S. flu vaccines have gone out. Sanofi estimates it will deliver around 80 million doses to the U.S., "based on the strength of preseason orders."
"The story is really all about readiness for a record flu season," Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said on the company's earnings call. "Looking ahead, we are planning for a new record flu vaccine sales in the Northern Hemisphere."
A bad flu season could be disastrous for public health systems already strained by the coronavirus, making vaccinations particularly critical. Depending on the flu strain that's prevalent each year, however, the effectiveness of flu vaccines can vary.