February 2, 2018 / 7:23 AM / 5 months ago

AstraZeneca flags return to drug growth in 2018, China shines

LONDON (Reuters) - AstraZeneca (AZN.L) expects a return to drug sales growth in 2018 as new medicines win market share and the group puts patent losses behind it, although the need to invest in launches will weigh on profit this year.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of AstraZeneca is seen on a medication package in a pharmacy in London, Britain, April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File Photo

AstraZeneca has suffered the industry’s biggest patent cliff since 2012, wiping out more than half of its sales, but Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said it was turning a corner and spending as a proportion of sales would reduce by 2019-20.

After a 5 percent fall in 2017, the group expects drug sales this year to grow at a low single-figure percentage rate, driven by new treatments for cancer, in particular, and buoyed by 20 percent-plus sales growth in China.

“We have a pipeline that is over-sized relative to the current size of our company,” Soriot said.

“That’s a good thing because over the next two or three years we are going to be able to drive a very strong growth rate - but of course it creates a need to resource those launches.”

The need to invest heavily in promoting new medicines will hold back profits this year, with the company predicting core earnings per share (EPS) of $3.30 to $3.50 - below the Thomson Reuters consensus of $3.61.

The weak profit guidance initially pushed the shares lower before they rallied to stand 2.7 percent higher by 1550 GMT after Soriot’s upbeat comments on long-term profitability.

“While the EPS guidance range suggests modest downside to consensus, this clearly reflects plans to invest more aggressively behind new launches, which investors should be comfortable with,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Richard Parkes.

EXTERNALISATION DEALS

Revenue last year was boosted by a bumper haul of “externalisation” deals, involving asset sales and collaborations with other companies, which some analysts have criticised for flattering results.

Such deals contributed $2.3 billion in 2017 out of total revenue of $22.5 billion, but AstraZeneca said they had peaked and would decline in 2018.

AstraZeneca has had some notable new product successes recently, with oncology pills Tagrisso and Lynparza both doing well and progress in other areas, including novel treatments for lung disorders.

Its heart drug Brilinta and Farxiga for diabetes have also both just breached the $1 billion annual sales mark, while its business in China is outgrowing rivals.

AstraZeneca aims to step up its China push through two new deals with Chinese tech giants Alibaba (BABA.N) and Tencent (0700.HK) announced on Friday, designed to optimise drug use and fight counterfeit medicines.

Still, the pace of its turnaround remains uncertain pending further clinical trial read-outs in the multibillion-dollar cancer immunotherapy market, where AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi is going head to head with rival drugs from Merck & Co (MRK.N), Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY.N) and Roche (ROG.S).

“The very successful launch in the coming months of Imfinzi in lung cancer is crucial if AstraZeneca is going to make up lost ground,” said Trinity Delta analyst Mick Cooper.

AstraZeneca suffered the biggest ever daily fall in its shares last July, following disappointing initial results from a lung cancer trial dubbed Mystic. Since then the shares have rallied, helped by good news from two other studies.

Further data from the Mystic trial is due in the first half of this year.

Fourth-quarter core EPS, which excludes some items, increased 7 percent to $1.30 cents on revenue of $5.78 billion, helped by one-off tax gains. Analysts, on average, had forecast earnings of 84 cents on revenue of $5.46 billion.

Reporting by Ben Hirschler; editing by Keith Weir, Elaine Hardcastle and David Evans

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