By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) – Swiss drugmaker Roche predicted on Wednesday that demand for its drugs would accelerate for the remainder of 2021, after first-quarter sales of COVID-19 tests offset a pandemic-influenced slump in its main pharmaceuticals business.
Chief Executive Severin Schwan’s assessment of the pandemic-disrupted market has ranged from mid-2020 optimism that health care systems were learning to navigate the crisis, to later conceding improvements were taking longer as people skipped doctors visits, cutting demand for drugs.
Schwan now sees hope for the rest of 2021.
“We expect to accelerate the growth in pharma, in particular, for the remainder of the year as vaccinations progress and patients resume their doctor visits,” Schwan told reporters on a call.
Roche shares rose 1.5% at 1018 GMT, the strongest performers on Switzerland’s benchmark Swiss Market Index.
First-quarter sales were 14.9 billion Swiss francs ($16.3 billion), down 1% from 15.1 billion francs a year earlier, Roche said in a statement. The company did not report a quarterly profit.
Diagnostics sales, driven by demand for COVID-19 tests for everything from active infections to antibodies in people who have recovered, rose 55% to 4.3 billion francs. That contrasts with the drug business, where sales slipped 9% to 10.6 billion francs.
Schwan still sees current-year overall sales growth in the low- to mid-single-digit range at constant exchange rates, with similar core earnings per share growth, helped in part as COVID-19 testing demand remains robust in months to come.
Roche’s pandemic portfolio was lifted by Actemra, an arthritis drug repurposed for COVID-19 pneumonia whose revenue rose 22% to 779 million francs, and an anti-COVID-19 antibody cocktail that reaped 166 million francs.
Some positive pandemic news actually resulted in a setback for Roche’s trial aspirations.
The company delayed a study of its anti-COVID-19 oral pill in Britain, because rising vaccination rates have checked infections and made finding patients harder.
“You set up sites where there’s a lot of COVID, and then by the time you’re ready to enrol, the pandemic has moved somewhere else and you’re sort of chasing it,” Roche drugs division chief Bill Anderson said.
($1 = 0.9164 Swiss francs)
(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields, Stephen Coates and Jane Merriman)