COVID proves to be double-edged sword for Swiss healthcare giant Roche

July 22, 2021, 5:15 PM UTC

The Coronavirus pandemic is proving to be both a blessing and a curse for Roche, Europe’s second most valuable company after Nestlé. 

Selling testing kits and a COVID-19 drug cocktail famously given to then-President Donald Trump propped up first-half results at the Swiss healthcare giant, and more than made up for a contraction in the company’s broader pharmaceuticals division beset by cheaper copycat generics.

Yet the virus also cost Roche in the form of lost pharmaceutical sales for the company’s other treatments as fewer patients were willing or able to go for treatment due to global lockdowns. Moreover, demand for its COVID diagnostics going forward remains uncertain as vaccinations rates continue to rise.

“As expected, demand for COVID-19 tests peaked in the second quarter,” Chief Executive Severin Schwan warned in a statement.

Revenue surged and earnings more than doubled in its diagnostics division, which Roche bolstered in April through the $1.9 billion acquisition of U.S. provider GenMark. In fact Roche’s entire topline growth during the first six months of the year can be attributed to revenue from its various COVID-19 tests nearly quadrupling to 2.5 billion Swiss francs ($2.7 billion).

Another 595 million francs in incremental turnover came from sales of Ronapreve, a new therapy developed together with Regeneron that was used to treat Trump when he contracted the virus while in office last year.

Pandemic-related restrictions and rolling lockdowns discouraged some patients from visiting their physicians and hospitals, especially affecting the elderly. Many hospitals and healthcare practices were forced to delay or cancel non-critical procedures.

This hurt demand for Roche’s multiple sclerosis treatment Ocrevus, for example, a bright spot in the company’s drug portfolio that overtook Avastin as the group’s top seller during the period. 

Revenue for this drug soared 23% to 2.4 billion francs, but it would have been even higher had it not been for COVID. Administered via intravenous infusion, Ocrevus requires hospital visits which were in some cases cancelled or delayed.

An eye on Alzheimer’s treatments

Schwan acknowledged cheaper rival medications were cutting into his company’s larger and more lucrative pharma business after the loss of patent protection on cash cows like its previous best-seller Avastin.

The drug, which treats a variety of advanced cancers, saw a 40% drop in sales to 1.65 billion francs, driven by new, cheaper competition in Europe that entered the market in the latter half of last year.

While Schwan claimed Roche researchers were making “significant progress” on its product pipeline for new drugs, little was said about its new Alzheimer’s treatment Gantenerumab in advance of next year’s expected results of a clinical trial.

Ever since the FDA approved in June Biogen’s Aduhelm treatment for the debilitating disease and Eli Lilly’s advances with its treatment donanemab, analysts expect news on Roche’s own treatment will serve as a key catalyst for the shares.

“Cosmetically a good H1, but a large proportion of the beat in both divisions is COVID driven,” wrote UBS in a research note, adding that investor focus going forward will be on gantenerumab.

Roche said it continues to expect sales and earnings to grow this year by a low to mid-single digit percentage rate at constant exchange rates, leading to an increase in its dividend.

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