Comment: Astra: why public interest must be heard

Martin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
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PERHAPS it won’t be a walkover after all. UK drugs major AstraZeneca has come out with punchy sales forecasts in its attempt to ward off the takeover attentions of Pfizer of the United States.

And, although nothing is by any means guaranteed, the UK group did not appear to be firing blanks yesterday. More details were given of the commercial potential of a range of treatments Astra has in the pipeline, with independent analysts accepting that it is well-placed in areas from cancer and asthma to diabetes, heart disease and lung disorders.

It also has a possible therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, an increasing problem for society but an opportunity for strong financial gains.

It is this pipeline of products that Astra feels Pfizer is trying to snaffle on the cheap. Astra predicts that its revenues will rise 75 per cent to $45 billion (£26.5bn) within a decade despite some contraction in the short-term as established drugs come out of patent.

While the next three years may be bumpy, the group forecasts that its heart drug Brilinta alone has the potential to deliver annual sales of about $3.5bn by 2023, with diabetes and respiratory medicines adding about $8bn each.

In cancer treatment, the company is predicting potential peak sales of about $6.5bn for its experimental immunotherapy drug MED14736.

Okay, forecasts are not facts. But the skirmishing is finished and the battle lines are being formed on the bid.

The financial deconstruction of the commercial potential of its pipeline shows Astra is not just wrapping itself in the flag against the Americans’ current $106bn takeover approach.

There is also too much Pfizer paper in the current terms to interest institutional investors. The latter tend to like strategic rationale, but love money on the table, too.

Confirmation that UK politicians want to scrutinise Pfizer’s approach is also useful to Astra’s defence.

Such action may help prevent a move that seems designed to give Pfizer a more obliging tax break but which would be damaging to the UK’s key life science industry.

David Cameron’s contention that this is just a commercial matter that needs to be sorted out by the companies without Whitehall interference looks more simplistic by the day.

At the least, Astra’s salvo of sales prospects could make Pfizer cough up more. But perhaps, in an industry this important, wider factors such as national interest should come into play.

Warm-up act for main attraction at Barclays

The problem that Barclays’ finance director Tushar Morzaria faced by fronting the bank’s first-quarter results was that he was making an appearance before the main act.

His boss Antony Jenkins presents a strategic update tomorrow, at which a further surgical incision of the investment bank, Barcap, is a virtual racing cert.

In addition, most of the first-quarter trends – better retail performance, a wobbly fixed-interest contribution at Barcap – were just a continuation of what we saw at Barclays’ recent annual results.

Most observers believe Jenkins will unveil more Barcap redundancies tomorrow to “right-size” Barcap. These would be on top of the 450 top directors and managing directors who have already been axed.

The boss might also reveal Barclays is going to create a “bad bank” of its unwanted assets, which is highly fashionable in the sector.

Twitter: @martinflanagan8