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With vaccine sales slowing down, Pfizer banks on oncology biosimilars

Slower vaccine sales and rising operating costs led to subdued growth for Pfizer Inc. last year, but the company is optimistic about biosimilars and combination therapies, executives said in an earnings call.

The company expects to file five biosimilar products in 2018 and 2019, including biosimilars for Roche Holding AG's Herceptin, Avastin and Rituxan, all used to treat cancer; and AbbVie Inc.'s Humira, said John Young, Pfizer's group president of essential health.

"When you look at all of those drivers, combining that with the early-stage pipeline that we have, we believe we are really well-positioned to have a rich pipeline of biosimilars in the marketplace over the medium term," Young said during the Jan. 31 call.

He hedged bets that biosimilar uptake would be rapid, noting that cancer patients were unlikely to switch courses of therapy and Pfizer's biosimilars, when introduced to market, would likely start with new patients.

However, he said that the company was looking at numbers in Europe, where biosimilar uptake is about 28% to 29% in the second year. Pfizer's Inflectra, a biosimilar for Remicade, was FDA approved in April 2016 and first hit the U.S. market in November.

Executives hope these drugs can offset the decline of Prevnar, the vaccine for pneumococcal pneumonia. Rapid success has diminished the market for the product, Albert Bourla, president of innovative health, said, noting that sales would be flat to declining this year, as about 50% of the U.S. population over 65 years old is already vaccinated.

Bourla said the decline would be offset by international adult vaccine growth, an increase of vaccinations in the 19-64 age range, and a modest growth in pediatric indications.

In an analyst note, Credit Suisse's Vamil Divan expressed optimism for the company's vaccine division. Two vaccines in trial stages, one for Clostridium difficile and another for the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, could help drive more growth in the vaccines business than people realize, Divan said.

"We believe both have the potential to obtain blockbuster status, should their profiles hold up well during the course of clinical development," Divan said, noting that both have been granted fast track status by the FDA.

"In addition, since both vaccines are targeting important infections that tend to occur in the hospital setting, there would likely be significant overlap in the infrastructure needed to effectively commercialize the products," Divan said.

In the earnings call, CEO Ian Read also said the company is focused on avelumab, its monoclonal antibody in partnership with Merck KGaA, both as a single therapy and in combination with other agents to treat cancer.

"We believe the true value will be in combinations and potentially with targeted agents such as Inlyta," he said of the company's renal cancer therapy, adding that antibody drug conjugates, vaccines and other drugs in Pfizer's pipeline could also be useful in combination.

Responding to several questions about President Trump's meeting with pharmaceutical executives, happening at the same time as the call, Read said that he was open to the new administration's policies.

"To the extent that they can remove regulations and make it easier and faster to bring drugs to market, that will make the marketplace a lot more competitive, which will then in turn help bring down drug prices," he said, adding that Pfizer can be a positive part of U.S. job creation, if there is tax reform.