Biopharma’s stock market winners and losers so far this year

Moderna is the standout gainer, but the stragglers are becoming more apparent as the pandemic tide retreats.

Quarterly shareprice performance

The third quarter of 2021 was the most testing period that biopharma investors had experienced for some time, Evaluate Vantage reported this week. Investor enthusiasm for all things biotech has certainly dimmed recently, along with the pandemic threat. But which stocks are still feeling the love this year, and which developers are struggling?

No prizes for guessing the biggest gainer of the year to date. Moderna’s barely comprehensible $114bn explosion in market cap over the first nine months of 2021 is surely one of the swiftest valuation hikes this sector has seen. Other Covid-19 plays are still riding high, but there are fewer of these than in recent months.

Of the biggest gainers detailed below, Pfizer, Regeneron, Biontech, Novavax and Dynavax can also thank progress with coronavirus vaccines or treatments for their advances.

Some of the biggest decliners tell the opposite story. The South Korean developer Shin Poong, for example, was one of last year’s biggest risers on hopes for a repurposed malaria drug in Covid-19, but these have since faded.

This analysis is constructed from around 700 global, pure-play drug developers in the Evaluate Pharma database. Those with a market capitalisation of more than $250m at the start of the year are split into the cohorts described in the tables below, and their performance tracked over the year.

Biopharma's biggest winners at the nine-month stage
Company  9-mth market cap change ($bn)  9-mth share price change  Market cap at Sep 30, 2021 ($bn)
Big pharma 
Lilly 60.1 37% 221.6
Astrazeneca 54.9 20% 186.1
Pfizer 36.5 17% 241.1
Other large developers ($25bn+ market cap)
Moderna 114.0 268% 155.3
Novo Nordisk 70.1 46% 226.2
Regeneron  13.0 25% 63.6
Mid cap ($5-25bn market cap)
Biontech 46.6 183% 66.2
Novavax 8.3 86% 15.4
Bausch Health  2.9 72% 10.3
Small cap ($250m-5bn market cap)
Prothena 2.7 493% 3.1
Imugene 1.6 380% 2.0
Dynavax Technologies 1.7 332% 2.2
Source: Evaluate Pharma. Note: companies are assigned these groupings based on year-end 2020 market cap. 

Surging hopes for several of Lilly’s pipeline assets – including donanemab for Alzheimer’s and tirzepatide for diabetes – have made that company the big pharma winner so far. But Astrazeneca, which has been applauded for successes in oncology, is not far behind.

The diabetes giant Novo Nordisk is being rewarded for a very strong launch of its latest obesity offering, Wegovy, with initial demand outstripping supply. Bausch Health appears to have put the spectres of its Valeant past and brush with bankruptcy behind it.

Among the small caps, Prothena became one of many developers working in Alzheimer’s to get a boost when the FDA approved Biogen’s Aduhelm. And Australia's Imugene has had a remarkable year, despite focusing largely on oncolytic viruses, an area of cancer immunotherapy that has failed to deliver a notable success.

On the down

Novartis is leading the big pharma fallers so far this year. Concerns about the Swiss firm’s pipeline, a delay to US approval of the expensively-acquired inclisiran, and threats to Spinraza are all taking their toll.

Merck & Co is unlikely to finish the year at this end of the table, however; the stock has added 10% in the wake of success with the oral Covid-19 antiviral molnupiravir in the opening days of the fourth quarter, taking shares to a high for the year.

Asian developers dominate decliners among the world’s other large drug makers. China’s Jiangsu Hengrui is struggling with its transformation from a generics player into an innovative drug developer; Celltrion has been hit along with other healthcare stocks in South Korea; and shareholders are fretting about Chugai’s ability to replace some of its big sales generators.

Just outside this group, Vertex stands out as the lone large Western developer nursing losses. Shares in the cystic fibrosis giant are down 23% so far this year, and are currently testing two-year lows, with the company hit by a series of pipeline setbacks and fading confidence in its strategy.

Finally, classic biopharma blow-ups of a clinical or regulatory nature can be found among the mid and small caps. Acadia has never recovered from the FDA’s rejection of a new use for Nuplazid, for example, while a miss in Pompe disease crushed Amicus.

And it seems that investors consider recovery from these small-cap disasters unlikely. Forte failed in atopic dermatitis; Graybug’s vision-loss project managed to score worse than existing therapies; and investors appear to believe that the clinical hold on Sigilon’s haemophilia project could prove permanent.

Biopharma's biggest decliners at the nine-month stage
Company  9-mth market cap change ($bn)  9-mth share price change  Market cap at Sep 30, 2021 ($bn)
Big pharma 
Novartis -31.9 -13% 182.9
Merck & Co -16.8 -8% 190.1
Bristol Myers Squibb -8.9 -5% 131.5
Other large developers ($25bn+ market cap)
Jiangsu Hengrui  -32.1 -49% 56.2
Celltrion -11.0 -28% 31.3
Chugai  -25.4 -25% 62.5
Mid cap ($5-25bn market cap)
Acadia  -5.8 -69% 2.7
Amicus  -3.5 -59% 2.5
Shin Poong  -3.1 -54% 2.7
Small cap ($250m-5bn market cap)
Forte Biosciences -0.4 -92% 0.0
Graybug Vision -0.5 -89% 0.1
Sigilon -1.2 -88% 0.2
Source: Evaluate Pharma. Note: companies are assigned these groupings based on year-end 2020 market cap. 

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