Roche’s COVID-19 tests business saves the day for slumping drug division

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Swiss drugmaker Roche on Wednesday stuck to its 2021 forecast for revenue growth, as first-quarter sales of COVID-19 tests offset a slumping main drug business that has been hurt as the pandemic limits doctor visits for other diseases.

Sales were 14.9 billion Swiss francs ($16.26 billion), which in Swiss francs was down 1% from 15.1 billion francs in the year-earlier period, Roche said in a statement. The Basel-based company, which does not report quarterly profit, said the strong Swiss franc dragged down revenue.

Diagnostics sales, driven by demand for an array of COVID-19 tests for everything from infections to antibodies in people who have recovered, rose 55% to 4.3 billion francs. That contrasts with falling fortunes in the drug business, where revenue slipped 9% to 10.6 billion francs.

Chief Executive Severin Schwan was optimistic in mid-2020 that health care systems were successfully navigating the pandemic and that revenue from drugs would normalise. But with COVID-19 infections raging, Schwan has had to modify his hopes for a drug sales recovery, even if diagnostics pick up the slack.

“The pandemic continued to have a negative impact overall on the division’s sales, especially for medicines where regular visits to hospitals or health practices are needed,” Roche said.

The company still expects current-year sales growth in the low- to mid-single-digit range at constant exchange rates, with similar core earnings per share growth.

Among the drugs hardest hit by the pandemic was top-selling Ocrevus, whose growth slowed to 16%, down from 24% last year, to 1.2 billion francs. “The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a certain negative impact,” Roche said.

The drugs business was lifted by Actemra, an arthritis drug repurposed for COVID-19 pneumonia whose revenue rose 22% to 779 million francs, as well as an anti-COVID-19 antibody cocktail it has partnered on with Regeneron that reaped 166 million francs.

Photo: The logo of Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche at the headquarters in Basle, Switzerland . EPA-EFE/STEFFEN SCHMIDT