Mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical industry were more abundant in the second quarter than during the same period in years’ past, an uptick in activity that could help the sector rebound from a historic downturn.
Between April and June, there were at least 14 biopharma acquisitions worth $50 million or more, a tally roughly two- to three-times larger than what was seen in that stretch in each of the last four years. And if megadeals like AbbVie’s 2019 takeover of Allergan weren’t factored in, this year’s second quarter would outrank the prior four in value, with approximately $23.4 billion spent on buyouts.
Almost half of that sum came from Pfizer’s $11.6 billion purchase of Biohaven Pharmaceuticals, the neuroscience-focused company that sells the migraine medication Nurtec ODT. But three other acquisitions also surpassed the billion-dollar mark, and involved smaller makers of vaccines and cancer drugs getting absorbed by much larger, multinational firms like Bristol Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline.
This uptick comes after a somewhat prolonged dearth of dealmaking. In a January report, financial services firm Ernst & Young found that 2021 was one of the least active years for biopharma M&A in the last decade. At $108 billion, last year’s cumulative deal value was lower than the $128 billion recorded in 2020 and less than half the $261 billion seen in 2019, according to EY.
To some industry followers, the number and size of recent transactions may not be so surprising. Last year, analysts at the investment bank SVB Securities wrote that they expected the pace of biopharma dealmaking to either hold or increase in 2022.
Such predictions have hinged on several factors, with one being the amount of cash many would-be acquirers are sitting on. Pfizer, thanks in part to its coronavirus vaccine, ended the first quarter with $2.5 billion in cash and cash equivalents and another $21.4 billion in short-term investments. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, meanwhile, just sold off billions of dollars worth of stock in crosstown rival Roche.
Merck, maker of the COVID-19 pill Lagevrio and the blockbuster cancer therapy Keytruda, also had nearly $8.6 billion in cash and cash equivalents by the end of March. Merck may be looking to put that money to work, too, as The Wall Street Journal reported last month, and again Thursday, that the company could acquire Seagen, a Seattle-based cancer drugmaker currently worth more than $32 billion.
While Seagen’s share price has grown since the buyout talks became public, a broad downturn in the biotech stock market has deflated the valuations of many younger, smaller drug companies. Now, amid concerns that funding may be harder to come by, dozens of biotechs are reorganizing or shedding programs to save cash. In a June report, accounting firm PwC noted that more than 60 have announced layoffs this year, with several ending operations altogether.
Private biotechs are facing a tougher environment too, with venture financing numbers trending downward and little demand for initial public offerings.
But another effect of lower valuations, according to deal experts, could be more M&A. “With capital becoming harder to come by for most biotechs, pharma is in a good position to acquire many of these companies at a discount from their highs of just a couple years ago,” partners at PwC wrote in the report.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, biopharma buyers often paid at least double the market value of the companies they were acquiring. And though premiums have remained in the triple-digits for some deals this year, others like the Pfizer-Biohaven one or GSK’s purchase of Sierra Oncology fell in the range of about 40% to 80%. In some cases, like the buyouts of Radius Health and Epizyme, biotechs have sold themselves for prices at or near all-time lows.
Such deals suggest that while biotech executives “have been slow to accept lower valuations … more companies are willing to explore alternative means of financing as capital becomes harder to come by,” the PwC partners wrote.
If the recent deal spree continues, it may provide a boost to the biotech industry. M&A is one of the main ways investors gauge the health of the sector and their ability to secure returns, so increased activity could reinstill confidence.
Looking ahead, the PwC partners expect dealmaking to continue. They believe large pharmaceutical companies will pursue acquisitions to, among other reasons, bring in new drugs that can help offset the expected losses should some of their key products lose patent protection over the next several years.
“All of the stars are aligned for there to be a flurry of deals activity across all areas of the sector,” the partners wrote.