By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - Roche <ROG.VX> is set to kick off the Big Pharma reporting season with a fall in sales on Thursday as a strong Swiss franc, weak demand for top-selling cancer drug Avastin and lack of Tamiflu revenue take their toll.
The absence of last year's windfall profits from drugs and vaccines to tackle the H1N1 swine flu pandemic will be a common theme for several European drugmakers.
Roche saw high demand for Tamiflu, a pill used to treat flu, and sales of pandemic vaccines also inflated revenues at GlaxoSmithKline <GSK.L>, Novartis <NOVN.VX> and Sanofi-Aventis <SASY.PA> in the first three months of 2010.
Business this year is back to normal, with Tamiflu sales seen down about 75 percent, dragging Roche quarterly pharmaceutical sales 9.2 percent lower, as European price cuts also take their toll, according to a Reuters poll of analysts.
Overall sales by the Swiss group, which is also the world leader in diagnostics, are seen falling 7.2 percent to 11.4 billion Swiss francs ($12.5 billion).
"The pharmaceuticals division will continue to show the impact of the austerity measures in Europe, lower use of Avastin in breast cancer following the partial removal of the indication in Europe and the recommendation of the FDA panel to remove the label in the USA, (and) the absence of pandemic sales for Tamiflu," Helvea analyst Karl-Heinz Koch said in a note.
Roche only gives sales figures at the quarterly stage, and investors will have to wait until next week for full results from other large drugmakers, including Eli Lilly <LLY.N>, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> and Abbott <ABT.N>.
Across the industry, drug companies are grappling with a wave of patent expiries on former blockbuster medicines and a lack of new products to replace them.
The result has been retrenchment and a series of deals designed to bolster flagging pipelines, such as Sanofi's $20 billion-plus purchase of Genzyme, which closed on Friday.
Industry goliath Pfizer <PFE.N> will keep the market guessing about how it is faring until May 3, when new Chief Executive Ian Read will present his first full quarter in charge of the world's biggest drugmaker.
So far, investors have liked what they have seen of Read's approach to cutting Pfizer's cost base and potentially divesting more units, and the stock has outperformed all its Big Pharma peers in 2011, with a gain of 18 percent.
Goldman Sachs analyst Jami Rubin expects Read to move rapidly to pare back the business with break-ups and spin-offs, as a debate among drug company executives about the right strategy for the future gains traction.
U.S. rival Merck, which is locked in an arbitration process with J&J over arthritis drugs Remicade and Simponi, has proved the laggard and has shed more than 5 percent since January 1.
(Additional reporting by Katie Reid in Zurich; Editing by Will Waterman)