Updated: May 1, 2021
The pharma sector rapidly took center stage when covid-19 caught the world off guard in 2020. As the year went on, drugmakers fought the coronavirus on the one hand and on the other, battled with pandemic disruptions – from manufacturing and marketing to R&D and revenue.
And while there has been successes recorded particular with regards to drugs and vaccines against Covid-19, the crisis is yet to be full nipped in the bud. Drug and vaccine makers are flexing their supply chains and production muscles to help the entire human race defeat the pandemic – and still searching for new vaccines and treatments, too.
In this article, we rank the top 5 pharma companies in the world by revenues recorded in 2020. Despite issues associated with the pandemic, these firms largely met and exceeded their financial projections last year as drugs kept reaching patients, despite lockdowns and social distancing. Additionally, the pandemic offered an opportunity for the pharma industry to rehab its public image problem.
While the top 5 list isn’t notably different from year to year – the world’s biggest drugmakers don’t change usually – astute pharma enthusiasts may notice some major differences in the 2020 rankings from the previous years.
The 2021 rankings is expected to bring more changes. Companies with successful Covid-19 drugs and vaccines are set for major revenues boosts, including Pfizer and its $15 billion revenue projection for its BioNTech-partnered vaccine.
Johnson & Johnson2019 revenue: $82.6 billion
2018 revenue: $82.1 billion
Headquarters: New Brunswick, New Jersey
While successfully developing a coronavirus vaccine was J&J’s major success story in 2020, the overall effect of the challenging pandemic year was substantially flat sales for the largest pharma company in the world. The company’s revenue rose by just 0.6% overall to $82.6 billion.
Yet, J&J dodged a decline, thanks to an exceptional performance in its pharma business. The unit’s sales rose 8% to $45.6 billion, leading J&J’s three business departments, which also include medical devices and consumer healthcare.
The pharma boost made up for a mediocre 1.1% increase in consumer revenue and a drop of 11.6% for its medical devices business. J&J attributed the medical devices’ poor performance to the pandemic; potential patients deferred medical procedures, dragging on the company’s orthopedic, surgery and vision business engagements. Although sales in those units rebounded in the second half of 2020, it wasn’t enough to erase the first-half deficit.
Leading drug sales again was Stelara, J&J’s top-selling drug by sales, raking in $7.7 billion and increasing by 21%. However, it was outpaced in percentage growth, by many other meds. Tremfya, for one, gained 33% to $1.35 billion in sales, and Darzalex achieved 40% growth to $4.2 billion.
America was another outstanding spot in the pharma industry, chalking up a 21% gain on its way to $4.12 billion in sales.
On the decline among J&J pharma drugs, Remicade continued to drop down 14% to $3.75 billion as biosimilar competition enter into a third year. Prostate cancer drug Zytiga was also down 11.6% as it also continues to lose ground to cheaper alternatives.
2021 is turning out to be a marvelous year for J&J with its mission to deliver 1 billion coronavirus vaccine doses – and the revenue that comes with them.
J&J projects an overall revenue of $8.8 billion for 2021, but that doesn’t include vaccine sales. Using its U.S. deal’s average cost of $10 per shot as estimate, the vaccine could end up adding a massive $10 billion to J&J’s total earnings for the year.
2020 revenue: $62.05 billion
2019 revenue: $65.40 billion
Headquarters: Basel, Switzerland
Roche’s megablockbuster cancer trio – Herceptin, Avastin and Rituxan – officially went head-to-head with U.S. biosimilars for the first full year in 2020. And the result was bloodier than most had anticipated.
At the start of 2020, Roche was expecting biosimilars to bite roughly CHF 4 billion off its franchise, including an erosion in Japan and EU similar to the CHF 1.2 billion it had suffered in 2019. But, by the end of the year, the global loss totaled CHF 5.7 billion, including CHF 5.05 billion from the U.S., E.U and Japan.
That’s perhaps the worst it can get, though, Roche’s pharma chief Bill Anderson disclosed during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call in February. In 2021, it anticipates a biosimilar hit of CHF 4.6 billion, he noted.
Despite U.S. biosimilars being a bigger-than-anticipated threat, as CEO Severin Schwan described it, the firm would have been able to compensate for the revenue loss with growth from newer meds if it hadn’t been for Covid-19. But the reality was, Roche’s drugs – most of which are injectables administered by healthcare personnel – underperformed during the pandemic as patients and potential patients declined to visit their doctors.
Multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus became Roche’s new best-selling med beginning from the third quarter of 2020. However its year-long sales haul of CHF 4.48 billion fell short of industry analysts’ projections, and its 24% year-over-year growth at constant currencies was clearly a reduction from 2019’s 57%.
Roche was in the spotlight of the Covid battle early on when its IL-6 arthritis med Actemra earned a spot on China’s treatment guideline based on early signs that it was effective against a life-threatening immune overreaction known as cytokine storm. The med has achieved mixed results in three Roche-sponsored clinical trials. And a recent large-scale trial in the U.K. found both it and Regeneron’s IL-6 inhibitor Kevzara could significantly lower the risk of death in Covid patients in intensive care. Thanks to its Covid uptake, Actemra sales rose by 32% in 2020 to CHF 2.86 billion.
Other Covid-19 products boosted Roche Diagnostics unit, bringing about 14% growth in 2020 at constant currencies despite a fall in some routine tests. Overall, the Swiss company launched 15 diagnostics for Covid in 2020. In contrast, the larger pharma unit posted a sales reduction of 8% - or 2% at constant currencies – to CHF 44.53 billion
2020 revenue: $48.66 billion
2019 revenue: $47.45 billion
Headquarters: Basel, Switzerland
Novartis officially folded in The Medicines Company at the start of 2020. The next step would be achieving an FDA nod for the $9.7 billion acquisition’s centerpiece – PCSK9 cholesterol drug inclisiran – to get the blockbuster ball rolling. But Covid-19 affected that plan.
When the original decision date was announced in December, the FDA sent out a complete response letter, not due to efficacy or safety, but unresolved “inspection-related conditions” at a facility in Italy where a contractor oversees the manufacturing of the drug. The agency wasn’t able to inspect the plan as a result of the pandemic, and it wasn’t satisfied with the paperwork Novartis provided as an alternative.
The med did win an EU approval under the brand Leqvio in December, but its U.S. timeline remains uncertain. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan disclosed that Novartis would reply FDA’s requests by Q3 of this year. However, if the agency insists on an on-site check-up – and with foreign travel restrictions still in place, the approval could remain stalled. Meanwhile, Novartis is working on a tech transfer to its own facility.
Leave wasn’t the only regulatory setback Novartis suffered in 2020. The Swiss drugmaker was targeting a 2021 filing for a new formulation of gene therapy Zolgensma that’s infused into the spinal fluid instead of intravenously. If approved, it would let the drug reach spinal muscular atrophy patients up to 5 years of age.
However, the FDA remarked that it wants a separate pivotal phase 3 trial on top of an existing phase ½ study to consider Novartis’ application. The new requirement effectively postponed a filing to at least 2023, analysts projected.
Thanks to an EU approval and Japan’s reimbursement decision in May, Zolgensma recorded $920 million sales in 2020, up about 150% year over year despite the pandemic.
Cosentyx, currently Novartis’ best-selling med with $4.0 billion in 2020 sales, added non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis to its label, matching up to Eli Lilly’s IL-17 rival Taltz.
Merck and Co.
2020 revenue: $48.00 billion
2019 revenue: $46.84 billion
Headquarters: Kenilworth, New Jersey
The covid-19 pandemic has caused a one-two punch to pharma giant Merck & Co.
First, it stunted sales for many of the company’s tried-and-true meds. Second, the virus proved elusive to Merck’s top R&D minds. Despite some massive efforts, the company couldn’t successfully develop a Covid-19 vaccine or a treatment for those already infected.
However, knocking down one of the industry’s heavyweights requires more than a formidable left and right. At the end of pandemic-riddled 2020, the New Jersey-based pharma stood strong with $48 billion in earnings.
It was a 2.5% growth in sales, but nothing to approach the upward trend of 2019 when receipts increased by 11%. However, considering how the virus tilted the pharma landscape, and decidedly not in Merck’s favor, it was great to get out of 2020 in the black.
The blow Merck absorbed was even more strongly marked than expected. By late October, Merck had adjusted its predicted pandemic hit of $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion. Add this amount of loss to the 2020 sales figure and it shows a healthy 8% boost.
Merck’s market capitalization suffered a massive drop (10.5%) in 2020, but part of that can be attributed to the rare air of its figure to start the year ($230 billion). And while market cap figures for several drugmakers didn’t necessarily correspond to their response to the pandemic, Merck’s Covid performance surely didn’t help.
2020 revenue: $45.80 billion
2019 revenue: $33.27 billion
Headquarters: North Chicago, Illinois
At first-blush, AbbVie’s earnings increase is jarring; not many drugmakers can pull off 38% growth in a single year.
But there is a simple explanation for its robust 2020 numbers. Chalk it up to a buyout of Allergan, which catapulted AbbVie from a top 10 pharma to a top 5.
The deal, for which AbbVie paid $63 billion, was finalized in early May, and sales of the formidable suite of products inherited from the Irish pharma accounted for a massive chunk of the company’s $12.53 billion revenue boost.
The pandemic threatened to make it a challenging year for the cosmetic treatments Allergan was reputed for. Botox, for instance, witnessed a 43% dip from the second quarter of 2019 to the same quarter of last year. But the wrinkle-erasing formula rebounded to rake in $2.5 billion in less than eight months under AbbVie. Annualizing that number over 12 months would make the performance rough equal to the $3.8 billion Botox earned for Allergan in 2019.
The future for AbbVie couldn’t be much brighter, at least based on Wall Street’s projections. Among the top 10 companies by market capitalization at the end of 2020, AbbVie recorded the largest one-year growth, 44% to $189 billion.