Going into 2019, AbbVie expected biosimilar competition to drive a 30% reduction in ex-US sales of the blockbuster immunology antibody, Humira (adalimumab). Three-quarters of the way through the year, AbbVie now expects erosion to come in at 28%.
The two percentage point difference may appear small but it is financially significant, given Humira sales outside the US totalled $6.3bn (€5.7bn) in 2018.
AbbVie’s ability to retain a larger portion of those sales than expected caught the attention of Cowen analyst Steve Scala, who used a recent third quarter results conference call to ask management what is driving the better-than-expected performance.
Specifically, Scala asked AbbVie’s CEO, Rick Gonzalez, whether Humira was performing better than expected in markets where biosimilars are available or in regions where the blockbuster drug retains patent protection.
Gonzalez said, “The bulk of that is slightly better performance in the areas where biosimilars are impacting the market. There is a portion of it that’s a little better performance in the other markets as well. But the majority of it is driven by stabilisation of pricing in those markets at a level that came earlier than we would have expected.”
Despite beating expectations, sales of Humira, in regions where biosimilars are available, are falling fast. Ex-US sales of Humira totalled $1bn during the third quarter of 2019 – compared to $1.57bn in 2018.
The drop in sales in foreign markets has been offset by continued growth in the US, where sales of Humira increased almost 10% in the third quarter. Multiple Humira biosimilars are approved for use in the US but settlements between AbbVie and its would-be rivals will keep the drugs off the market until 2023.
By then, AbbVie hopes its takeover of Allergan will have lessened its reliance on Humira. The $63bn acquisition will give AbbVie control of Botox (botulinum toxin), another blockbuster that Gonzalez thinks is far less vulnerable to biosimilar competition than other biologics.
Gonzalez said, “Based on the uniqueness of this particular molecule, we have come to the conclusion it would be extremely difficult to create a biosimilar version of Botox and I would tell you, we looked at this very extensively with a lot of outside expertise and we feel very confident that that's the case.”
Other companies, notably Revance, have reached a different conclusion and hope to bring copies of Botox to market.