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Buffett's Berkshire bets on Big Pharma, invests in four drugmakers

(Reuters) - Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc BRKa.N said on Monday it has begun investing in the stocks of four large drugmakers, betting on an industry that could benefit when the world begins emerging from the coronavirus pandemic.

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In a regulatory filing detailing its U.S.-listed stock holdings as of Sept. 30, Berkshire disclosed $5.7 billion (£4.3 billion) of new healthcare stakes, including more than $1.8 billion each in Abbvie Inc ABBV.N, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co BMY.N, Merck & Co MRK.N and $136 million in Pfizer Inc PFE.N.

Shares of the drugmakers rose in after-hours trading.

The filing signals where Buffett and his portfolio managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler see value. Buffett normally handles large investments for Berkshire’s $245.3 billion stock portfolio himself.

“COVID-19 has made us think differently about healthcare,” said James Armstrong, president of Henry H. Armstrong & Associates in Pittsburgh, which owns Berkshire stock.

“The sector has become more efficient as big drug companies partner with smaller, inventive rivals,” Armstrong added. “But you will always need companies with scale for manufacturing and distribution, including vaccines with global application.”

Berkshire did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During the third quarter, Berkshire also took a $276 million stake in wireless phone company T-Mobile US Inc TMUS.O.

It sold a $1.3 billion stake in Costco Wholesale Corp COST.O, which benefited as people stocked up on groceries and home supplies during the pandemic, and pared holdings in four banks: JPMorgan Chase JPM.N, Wells Fargo WFC.N, PNC PNC.N and M&T MTB.N.

The stake in JPMorgan, where Combs is a director, fell by 96%.

Berkshire also bought more stock in the grocer Kroger KR.N, sold some stock in mining company Barrick Gold ABX.TO, and confirmed it bought more Bank of America BAC.N stock while trimming its Apple AAPL.O stake.

The healthcare bet is structured similarly to the more than $6 billion wager that Buffett made on the four largest U.S. airlines.

Buffett sold Berkshire’s airline holdings in April, saying the pandemic had changed the industry and made its outlook uncertain.

Other new investments in the quarter included a $6 billion stake in five Japanese trading houses and a $1.5 billion wager on newly public data storage company Snowflake Inc SNOW.N.

Berkshire also has more than 90 operating units including Geico car insurance, BNSF railroad and Dairy Queen ice cream.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Chris Reese, Sandra Maler and Sam Holmes