Vertex and Alexion Are Schooling Big Biotech

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s been a pretty miserable year for biotech’s biggest names, rife with disappointments and sluggish share-price performance. Not so for two middlewights of the industry: Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Strong earnings reports from Vertex Wednesday afternoon and Alexion Thursday morning capped off what’s been a string of largely positive news for the companies, whose market values clock in at a not-quite-top-tier $45 billion and $30 billion, respectively. While both stocks fell slightly on Thursday amid a rough day for biotech as a whole, the pair have substantially outperformed their bigger rivals and the rest of the industry this year, and may be poised to continue to do so. 

Vertex and Alexion Are Schooling Big Biotech

Vertex, in addition to delivering strong second-quarter sales of its newest cystic fibrosis medicine, disclosed Wednesday that clinical trials of its next generation of treatments are enrolling rapidly. That’s after a potentially threatening rival to its drugs from Galapagos NV stumbled in a clinical trial in June. 

Sales of Alexion’s lead drug Soliris beat second-quarter earnings expectations, helped by Food and Drug Administration approval for a new group of patients last year that should continue to juice growth. Earlier this year, a study of its follow-up to Soliris succeeded, bolstering confidence in the longevity of the firm’s rare-disease franchise. And the company is beginning to excise the ghosts of its disastrous 2015 acquisition of Synageva BioPharma Corp. by showing itself to be secure and confident enough to finally return to reasonably sized M&A. 

These two bright spots contrast sharply with biotech’s powerhouses, which aren’t having such a good time of it lately. Just this week, Biogen Inc. delivered news on an Alzheimer’s disease drug that was good — but not good enough — for investors, while Gilead Sciences Inc. said it’s losing its CEO as it tries to find a way to resume sales growth. Celgene Corp., meanwhile, has only exacerbated its over-dependence on blood-cancer drug Revlimid with several R&D flubs. Lastly, there is Amgen Inc., the only one of the big four whose stock is outperforming the Nasdaq Biotech Index. But though Amgen’s new migraine drug appears to be off to a great start, its growth will be weighed down by sales declines for older drugs for some time. 

Alexion and Vertex’s significant and relatively secure near-term current growth has a lot to recommend it in a sector where sentiment means a lot. As for Big Biotech, it’s increasingly looking like Big Pharma, chasing new medicines in order to avoid or arrest outright sales declines. And while Celgene has a comparable growth profile to Alexion, the likelihood that its revenue will fall off a cliff in 2023 at the latest when Revlimid generics hit, combined with a a big long-term guidance cut and and pipeline issues, make the company harder to trust or get enthusiastic about. 

Vertex and Alexion Are Schooling Big Biotech

Of course, Vertex and Alexion have problems of their own. Neither has proven able to really succeed beyond their lead drug franchises, and multiple other companies are trying to develop market-share-stealing alternatives to those crucial medicines.

But unlike some of their larger rivals, those issues feel quite distant, and the growth is now. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.

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