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Pfizer Deal Can Get Sickle-Cell Drugs to More Patients

Pfizer Deal Can Get Sickle-Cell Drugs to More Patients

Wednesday, 10 August, 2022 - 02:45

Pfizer continues to spend its Covid windfall wisely. The pharma company said it would spend $5.4 billion to buy Global Blood Therapeutics, which has one approved drug to treat sickle-cell disease and two more in development.

It’s a smart deal for both companies. Pfizer can put needed marketing muscle behind GBT’s products. In return, Pfizer will be able to further expand into rare diseases, an area that may be less vulnerable to Medicare price negotiations.

Shares of GBT have nearly doubled since Bloomberg reported last week that the company was attracting suitors.

Pfizer has been carefully choosing ways to spend its Covid windfall, which this year alone will amount to roughly $54 billion from sales of its mRNA vaccine and the antiviral Paxlovid. The company’s goal is to add $25 billion in revenue by 2030 through targeted acquisitions and partnerships — to sustain that audacious growth and offset patent losses on several key products.

Already this year, Pfizer has acquired privately held ReViral Ltd., which is developing treatments for respiratory syncytial virus, and has agreed to pay $11.6 billion for Biohaven Pharmaceutical Holding Company Ltd., which makes migraine treatments.

With GBT, Pfizer acquires a portfolio of drugs for sickle-cell disease, a rare condition caused by a mutation in the genetic code for hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells responsible for ferrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. In people with sickle cell, hemoglobin sticks together when oxygen isn’t on board, causing red blood cells to warp and stiffen into a crescent shape. GBT’s drug, Oxbryta, works by preventing the proteins from sticking to one another.

The Food and Drug Administration initially approved Oxbryta in 2019 to treat sickle-cell disease in people 12 and older, and late last year the drug was authorized to treat children aged 4 to 11. But the pandemic slowed Oxbryta’s growth; in 2021, it brought in only $194.7 million. Pfizer believes it can boost the combined annual sales of Oxbryta and two other sickle-cell treatments in the GBT pipeline to more than $3 billion.

Critically, that revenue stream is probably insulated from Medicare’s anticipated new power to negotiate the drug prices — because it treats a condition that is both rare and being pursued by many companies. Competition, in theory, will create its own pricing pressure.

As Pfizer puts significant energy into maximizing sales, it should also work to ensure that Oxbryta and any future sickle-cell therapies are available to the many children in low-resource countries who need them. The disease is most prevalent in Africa, where the death rate is also highest. Yet Oxbryta’s US list price of $10,500 per month puts the pills far out of reach for that population.

In announcing the deal, Pfizer and GBT noted that the bigger company would have an easier time distributing the sickle-cell treatments globally. When the deal closes, it would be good to see the specific plan for ensuring fast and equitable access.


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