January 30, 2020 / 6:38 AM / 6 months ago

UPDATE 2-Roche forecasts 2020 growth, helped by new drugs and China

* Swiss company predicts renewed 2020 growth

* Roche's newer drugs offset declines from older meds

* CEO Schwan: Beijing takes aim at U.S. life science superiority (Adds CEO comment, recasts to focus on China)

By John Miller

BASEL, Switzerland, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Roche expects sales and profits to rise this year as demand for new drugs and more business in China offsets declines in older medicines whose patents have expired.

For 2019, the company reported on Thursday a jump in net profit to 14.1 billion Swiss francs ($14.6 billion) from 10.9 billion a year earlier, when the drugmaker's bottom line was hit by a series of goodwill write-offs.

Sales rose 9% at constant exchange rates to 61.5 billion francs and Roche forecast an increase in the low- to mid-single digits for 2020, with core earnings per share growth broadly matching that.

Sales of Roche's newer drugs including Ocrevus for multiple sclerosis, Hemlibra for haemophilia A and cancer immunotherapy Tecentriq have accelerated.

That is mitigating pressure on its $20 billion trio of biotech cancer medicines Rituxan, Herceptin and Avastin which are now exposed to copies, or "biosimilars," in Europe, and increasingly, the United States.

"For 2020, we see our newer products growing with the same dynamic, though we expect to have a bigger hit from biosimilars in the United States," Chief Executive Severin Schwan told reporters.

"But our newer products are selling very well and we expect to be able to more than compensate for the biosimilar impact."

Roche shares were up slightly to 326 Swiss francs at 1430 GMT, the only benchmark Swiss Market Index stock in positive territory, as analysts said Schwan's optimism eased investor fears.

Roche also proposed raising its dividend to 9 francs per share.


"The spectre of biosimilars has lost its terror, the market can once again concentrate fully on the innovative developments," said Zuercher Kantonalbank analyst Michael Nawrath.

Hemlibra sales rose six-fold to 1.4 billion francs, Ocrevus rose nearly 60% to 3.7 billion and Tecentriq, Roche's late-to-market cancer immunotherapy, more than doubled to 1.9 billion.

Among older drugs, Avastin's sales rose 4% to 7.1 billion francs, but it faces its first European biosimilar rival this year. Herceptin slipped 12% to 6 billion francs, while Rituxan sales fell 4% to 6.5 billion.

Roche's Chinese sales rose nearly 18% last year, despite a dip in the final three months on destocking. Roche called that a blip, and forecast double-digit sales growth this year.

Schwan said Beijing's aim was clear - to catch and eventually surpass the U.S. life sciences industry via billions in investments in basic research, stronger intellectual property protections and regulations that speed medicines from foreign companies like Roche, and also local players, to market.

"China sees itself as a future life sciences champion," Schwan said. "When we talk to the Chinese, they say ... 'Help us beat the Americans with drug approvals.' " (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields and Mark Potter)

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