In 2019, the top 10 pharmaceutical R&D spenders collectively plowed a whopping $82 billion into their search for new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines, around $4 billion more than the previous year.
But is 2019 a high-water mark for R&D spending? EvaluatePharma says it just might be, at least when it's measured as a proportion of pharmaceutical revenue. Productivity gains and streamlining could shave away at that percentage, Evaluate figures, but it could also be a victim of pharma's success. Companies might decide to use less of their revenue to replenish pipelines after a fertile period of new product launches.
2019 was also another big year for FDA approvals. The regulator cleared 45 new drugs, down from a record 59 in 2018 but still the third-biggest annual haul of new molecular entities (NMEs) in the last quarter-century.
While our listing focuses on the largest companies with the deepest pockets, it’s worth noting that Big Pharma contributed less than half of the 2019 spending tally, showing once again that small, emerging biopharma companies are consolidating their roles as engines for new drug discovery—and, increasingly, taking drugs to market on their own.
Looking through the main programs across all the top 10 companies, it’s immediately clear oncology is still the biggest therapeutic category when it comes to spending. Cancer R&D has traditionally been expensive, but the FDA’s willingness to approve treatments on more limited data is cutting costs and offering a quicker path to market. And premium pricing, of course, means returns on investment can be high.
2019 also came to a close before the coronavirus pandemic started to take hold around the world, and it is inevitable that in 2020 it will put a damper on some companies' R&D spending. That was already apparent in the first quarter as drugmkakers delayed the start of clinical trials—the most expensive part of the R&D process—and also put the brakes on some projects altogether.
But for many top pharmas, the coronavirus has also sparked increased spending—often at-risk—on diagnostic, treatment and vaccine programs for COVID-19, and we’ve included these as we look ahead to what's coming in 2020.
At the time of writing some companies were suggesting patient enrollment may start to resume in some trials, as lockdowns are relaxed around the world. But with preliminary reports of a spike in new cases in some countries that have started to ease up on social distancing—notably Germany and South Korea—there’s no guaranteeing further disruption won't be ahead.