Gilead, Biogen Lead Biotechs That ‘Need to Do Deals’ for Growth

Biotech mergers should pick up steam this year as cash-rich companies whose shares stumbled through 2020 -- like Amgen Inc. and Gilead Sciences Inc. -- look to replenish wavering pipelines.

The first two weeks of the year already produced four large tie-ups in health care, and the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, which kicked off Monday, has typically lent itself to deal news. Wall Street’s anticipation comes as a bevy of heavyweights need to refill their portfolios ahead of expiring patents and emerging competition.

“A lot of the big guys, including the pharmaceuticals and not just the biotechs, need to do deals,” BNP Paribas Asset Management portfolio manager Christian Fay said in an interview. “2021 will be better for biopharma deals for sure.”

Gilead, Biogen Lead Biotechs That ‘Need to Do Deals’ for Growth

A basket of stocks of the two companies plus Biogen Inc. has fallen 4% since the start of 2020, compared with the 31% gain in the broader Nasdaq Biotech Index.

Investors had pushed many of the giants aside last year as they flocked to more innovative smaller companies or some involved in quashing the Covid-19 pandemic. Stock pickers and analysts now see more deals ahead after AstraZeneca Plc’s $39 billion purchase of Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Here are some companies that analysts and investors expects to strike deals in 2021:

Biogen

Haves: Biogen’s multiple sclerosis and spinal muscular atrophy drugs present a solid base of sales. Potential approval of its experimental Alzheimer’s disease medicine by a March decision date is key after management put “all of their eggs in aducanumab and not building their pipeline,” Fay said.

Needs: The company is starved for growth with analysts expecting drug sales to decline over the next two years after a blow to its blockbuster multiple sclerosis drug Tecfidera. Wall Street isn’t sold on whether its $3 billion pact with Sage Therapeutics Inc. will have a near-term impact. Biogen could take on debt to make a deal, but the question is whether it re-rates the stock, Mizuho analyst Salim Syed said. “People are trying to understand whether the equity story gets better if they make a deal,” he said.

Stock performance in 2020: -17%

Amgen

Haves: It delivered some promising pipeline results including data from cancer therapy sotorasib in 2020. Sales for copycat drugs of competitors’ medicines are worth watching with Goldman Sachs highlighting the company among those “best positioned to capitalize on bispecifics.”

Needs: Its cardiology business needs a boost after the company terminated a Cytokinetics Inc. partnership for a heart-failure drug. After some underwhelming results from a catalyst-heavy 2020 left the stock lower for the year, Wall Street asked what’s left for shares ahead of a potential rotation out of the $138 billion biotech.

“We have deep pockets but short arms, and we’ll dig in for the right opportunities as we have over the past two years,” Amgen CEO Robert Bradway said at the JPMorgan conference Monday. The company doesn’t want to “chase valuations” that could make the biotech’s shareholders lose, he said.

Stock performance in 2020: -4.6%

Merck & Co.

Haves: Merck’s juggernaut cancer drug Keytruda is expected to top $20 billion in annual sales by 2023, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, showing it’s not in a crunch to pull the trigger on deals. The company has been active in striking pacts, buying closely held OncoImmune for $425 million in cash.

Needs: Many on Wall Street see Merck leaning further into cancer technologies as it faces patent risks by the end of the decade. It “will be in focus” given the expected completion of its Organon spinoff in the second-quarter, which will leave it flush with $8 billion to $9 billion in a special dividend, Goldman’s Asad Haider wrote. Merck is “actively looking across the entire spectrum of assets to create the strongest portfolio,” the company said in a statement Monday.

Stock performance in 2020: -10%

Pfizer Inc.

Haves: Pfizer’s ability to get a Covid vaccine to market in record time was “nothing short of remarkable,” RBC Capital said. Deployment of the shots adds to Pfizer’s strong portfolio of blockbusters like Ibrance for breast cancer and blood thinner Eliquis with total drug sales expected to top $50 billion this year, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Needs: Still, Pfizer could string smaller deals together to beef up its drug pipeline, BNP Paribas’s Fay said. After a setback for Ibrance, the company could look to bolster its cancer drug portfolio, Jefferies health specialist Jared Holz said. A bigger takeout or more bolt-on acquisitions are likely needed to win over investors as it aims to backfill key patent losses in the medium term.

Stock performance in 2020: -0.9%

Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Haves: Vertex’s cystic fibrosis concentration has made it one of the most successful biotechs of the past five years. Trikafta is expected to rack up $6.8 billion in sales by 2023. The relative pure play company helps make it “very attractive” ahead of key data readouts in 2021, said Amy Kong, chief investment officer of Barrett Asset Management.

Needs: The company is in prime position to strike deals, with $6.2 billion in cash on hand and the need to “become a growth stock again,” Loncar Investments Chief Executive Officer Brad Loncar said. He sees a takeout of partner Crispr Therapeutics AG making “a lot of sense” for its gene-editing technology. At the JPMorgan conference, Vertex CEO Reshma Kewalramani said the company is interested in mid- and late-stage assets and technologies to expand its toolkit.

Stock performance in 2020: +7.9%

Gilead Sciences

Haves: Rapid development of Covid-19 therapeutic Veklury, the brand name for remdesivir, was estimated to bring about $2.8 billion in sales for 2020. Those sales, paired with recent purchases of cancer drug developers Immunomedics Inc. and Forty Seven Inc. and sales growth for its HIV franchise, have been key focuses for bulls.

Needs: A restructured partnership with Galapagos NV and a 2017 acquisition of Kite Pharma, the maker of CAR-T cancer therapy Yescarta, have turned up the pressure on Gilead to get deals right. Its shares limped through the end of 2020 after the pair of takeouts and success for a Covid-19 therapy failed to offset broader concerns over its future.

Stock performance in 2020: -10%

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