A blockbuster year could be building

If forecasts prove accurate 2023 could be the biggest year for blockbuster launches for some time.

Is biopharma about to have a very big year? If analysts are correct 22 potential blockbusters could be launched this year, consensus forecasts from Evaluate Pharma suggest, a level of productivity rivalled only by 2021, when pandemic approvals swelled the numbers.

In fact, this year looks so strong that it got us wondering. Might this be typical “beginning of the year” exuberance, ahead of the inevitable clinical mishaps or regulatory delays that are bound to knock several of these projects off course? 

To answer this question we mined archived forecasts to create the outlook for blockbuster launches as they stood at the start of each of the past five years. Projections had to have a product hitting the billion-dollar sales mark within five years for it to be counted. Generic approvals were excluded. 

A look at the output, below, suggests that sellside optimism about the industry’s late-stage pipeline is indeed sitting at a high water mark. The numbers behind the chart below are adjusted for inflation, so the apparent rise cannot be explained by the fact that a billion dollars was harder to hit in 2018.

The pandemic impact should be noted: eight of 2021’s potential blockbusters were either Covid treatments or vaccines. This outlier effect arguably makes the figure for this year look even stronger.

To recap, the chart above shows that at the beginning of 2018, analysts were expecting nine drugs launched that year to achieve blockbuster sales within the following five years. This start-of-the year optimism picked up notably in the following years, and seems to have taken another step up in 2023.

This begs a further question: how accurate have these projections proved? This remains unknowable for the more recent years, as products have had less time on the market. But, of 2018's drug launches, six have already achieved a billion dollars in annual sales.

Not all were in that original list of nine, however. Some surprise blockbusters have emerged.

Tepezza is a good example of such a surprise. When the thyroid eye drug was approved in 2020 the sellside was expecting around $600m in sales in year five on the market, according to Evaluate Pharma. It ended up making $820m in its first year, a hugely successful launch that ultimately prompted Amgen to pay $28bn for its maker, Horizon Therapeutics.

The table below shows a tally of launches that had hit blockbuster status by 2022, in each of the years of this analysis, split by surprise hits and those that were predicted in the chart above.

The speed with which pandemic products emerged created a lot of surprise hits in 2020 and 2021. Aside from this, it is clear that a lot of products still have much to do to realise sellside optimism. Come back in five years time and we will tell you whether 2023's huge potential was met. 

Tracking blockbuster launches 
  Prediction hits  Surprises
2018 5/9 1
2019 4/17 4
2020 3/14 6 (3 Covid products)
2021 1/22 6 (all Covid products)
2022 0/16 0
2023 0/22 0
Note: only products with $1bn in annual sales by 2022 counted. Source: Evaluate Pharma.

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