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COVID-19 headwinds impacted key drugs in Q3, but better weather expected

This article is an overview of the financial results of AstraZeneca, Bayer, Bristol-Myers, Becton Dickinson and select other healthcare companies that have reported their earnings since Nov. 2.

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AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot
Source: AstraZeneca

The diversion of patients away from hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact the performance of certain drugs in the third quarter. For AstraZeneca PLC, the biggest hit was taken by Pulmicort — a hospital-administered respiratory medicine — which saw sales plummet by 55%, primarily in China.

COVID-19 created a "hostile environment" for Pulmicort and certain other therapies, said AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot, who added that he expected a slow but steady return to normality for the asthma drug in 2021.

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, the Cambridge, U.K.-based company's third-quarter revenue grew 3% year over year to $6.58 billion. "It really bodes well for the future, as the world hopefully will return to more normality as we find solutions to this terrible pandemic," Soriot told reporters in a Nov. 5 earnings call.

"So for Q4, we still expect challenges, headwinds. But going into next year, the picture looks suddenly better," Soriot said.

The pandemic also had a notable impact on one of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s drugs: liso-cel. The lymphoma cell therapy — which it acquired as part of its $95 billion acquisition of Celgene Corp. — was due an approval decision from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by Nov. 16, but the regulator has still not scheduled the necessary inspection of the company's manufacturing plant in Texas.

"The FDA is doing what they can to ensure that the staff is kept safe in this COVID pandemic," Chief Medical Officer Samit Hirawat said during Bristol-Myers' Nov. 5 earnings call, indicating the company is "generally very happy with the dialogue that has been happening."

Another former Celgene drug, the multiple myeloma therapy Revlimid, played a major role in Bristol-Myers' third-quarter success, with revenue boosted 75% year over year to $10.5 billion.

Meanwhile, BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc.'s COO Jeffrey Ajer described how decreased hospital footfall has narrowed the San Rafael, Calif.-based company's opportunities for growth in 2020.

"Delays in new starts have persisted broadly since the start of the pandemic — disruption in clinic operations and disruption of patients pursuing diagnoses are the drivers behind this factor," Ajer said in a Nov. 5 earnings call. "The impact in any one quarter has been small, yet the cumulative effect on the growth of patients' commercial therapy is now material and has led to the slowing of projected growth."

Healthcare equipment company Becton Dickinson and Co. estimated the negative toll of the pandemic at $600 million in the third quarter alone. "Total COVID-19 testing revenues allowed us to offset the ongoing COVID headwinds in other businesses from lower hospital utilization, surgical procedures, routine lab testing volumes and research spending," CEO Tom Polen said in a Nov. 5 earnings call.

Sales of these COVID-19 tests meant the company has been able to move from a net-negative pandemic in the third quarter to a positive impact for the remainder of the year, Polen added.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., which is developing an investigational antibody cocktail for COVID-19, saw third-quarter earnings grow 26.2% year over year, partly driven by 69% growth in Dupixent that propelled the allergic disease drug past the $1 billion mark. Patient visits continued to pick up during the quarter, as healthcare systems adapted to treating individuals with the drug — which it co-markets with France's Sanofi — against a backdrop of the pandemic, Regeneron's senior vice president of commercial Marion McCourt said in an earnings call.

Legal settlements

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Bayer CEO Werner Baumann
Source: Bayer

German healthcare and chemicals conglomerate Bayer AG had a tougher quarter, with core EPS dropping 30.2% year over year. Sales were dented by the company's crop science division, which is facing mounting lawsuits in relation to the weedkiller Roundup.

CEO Werner Baumann revealed the company has now set aside $2 billion for litigation linked to the product, with agreements in principle for 88,500 of the 125,000 claims received.

Generic-drug maker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. is engaged in its own legal settlements about the Israeli company's alleged connection to the U.S. opioid epidemic. Teva remains in constructive dialogue with the attorney generals of various U.S. states, but the litigation — combined with a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the alleged payment of kickbacks for its multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone — is weighing on the company's share price, President and CEO Kåre Schultz said in a Nov. 5 earnings call.

"We believe that in both these cases, we will eventually see a good settlement. ... But it is, of course, a frustration that right now, we do see the market cap being held down by these legal situations," Schultz said.