Roche has reported a 9% fall in sales for the first quarter of 2011, hit by the strength of the Swiss franc, the expected decline of Tamiflu and lower Avastin revenues.

The Basel-based major says sales reached 11.12 billion francs (about $23.49 bilion), which reflects a negative exchange-rate impact of 1.1 billion francs, due primarily to significant weakening of the US dollar and the euro. Pharmaceutical sales were down 10% to 8.71 billion francs, driven by its oncology segment.

The firm’s top-selling drug in the quarter was MabThera/Rituxan (rituximab), for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia as well as rheumatoid arthritis. It contributed 1.56 billion francs, an increase of 7%, although Avastin (bevacizumab) had sales of 1.42 billion francs, down 6%.

The decline was due to "regulatory and reimbursement uncertainty" regarding the metastatic breast cancer indication" for Avastin. Sales of Herceptin (trastuzumab) for HER2-positive breast cancer rose 8% to 1.39 billion francs, while the chemotherapy Xeloda (capecitabine) grew 7% to 342 million francs. Sales of Tarceva (erlotinib), for advanced lung and pancreatic cancer, increased 8% to 317 million francs.

Pegasys sales down 15%

As for Roche’s other products, Pegasys (peginterferon alfa-2a), for hepatitis B and C, fell 15% to 346 million francs. The company said that in the US, key European countries and certain other mature markets, "the hepatitis C segment is currently contracting, as patients are delaying the start of therapy in anticipation of the launch of a new generation of direct-acting antivirals". Sales of the antiflu drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) predictably fell 47% to 252 million francs.

On the positive side, US turnover of Lucentis (ranibizumab) for wet age-related macular degeneration jumped 35% to 392 million francs, while RoActemra/Actemra (tocilizumab) for rheumatoid arthritis, rocketed 111% to 129 million francs. Revenues from Mircera (methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta), for the treatment of anaemia associated with chronic kidney disease, rose 30% to 70 million francs.

Chief executive Severin Schwan was positive about the performance, saying that "based on our first-quarter sales, we are on track to achieve our targets for the full-year". He added that since the beginning of the year "we have already announced positive results from seven key Phase II or III clinical trials, further underscoring our growth prospects for the coming years".

Full-year sales, excluding Tamiflu, are expected to grow at low single-digit rates in local currencies, reflecting the impact of US healthcare reform and European austerity measures, Roche noted. It added that in spite of a more challenging environment," earnings per share should rise by high single-digits at constant exchange rates in 2011 (the company does not publish quarterly profits).