British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) has been in the news this year for its partnership with Oxford University on a COVID-19 vaccine that’s one of the leaders in the race for regulatory authorization. This consistent growth stock is up 14% in 2020 and 26% from a year ago. What’s ahead for the company, and can the stock continue a steady ascent that started nearly four years ago?
AstraZeneca delivered a stellar performance in the first half of 2020, with revenue increasing 14% in constant currency and core earnings per share growing 26% from the first half last year. The company won’t commit to growth that hot in the second half of the year. Still, positive news of success for the company’s newest drugs, its efforts to fight COVID-19, and its pipeline advancements should continue to be a tailwind for the company.
The outlook for COVID-19 treatments and vaccine
AstraZeneca’s collaboration with Oxford has produced one of the front-runners in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, called AZD1222. Late-stage trials in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil are underway, and a trial with 30,000 participants just started in the U.S. The company has committed to supply the vaccine globally for no profit, though, so even if it succeeds, it won’t be a driver for financial results. AstraZeneca also doesn’t have a long-term vaccine strategy, so a launch of AZD1222 won’t necessarily lead to future vaccine programs for the company.
But other efforts directed at the pandemic might be of more interest to investors. AstraZeneca has begun a phase 1 trial of AZD7442, a mixture of two manufactured antibodies that mimic natural antibodies isolated and modified from recovered COVID-19 patients. The company believes the treatment could give patients six months of protection against the virus and could be used to treat patients who are already infected. A million doses have already been ordered by the U.K.
AstraZeneca is also conducting clinical trials of approved drugs in its portfolio for potential treatment of the devastating effects of the virus. The company’s leukemia drug Calquence is in two phase 2 trials to find out if it can suppress cytokine storms, the severe immune reaction that damages the lungs of novel coronavirus victims. The company is also conducting two mid-stage trials of Farxiga, a diabetes drug that has applications for heart failure and kidney disease, believing it could potentially reduce organ failure in COVID-19 patients. AstraZeneca’s asthma drugs are being used in late-stage clinical trials with novel coronavirus patients.
The outlook for portfolio growth
AstraZeneca had years of flat growth due to generic competition after some key patent expirations, but some important acquisitions and its investments in its fast-growing cancer drugs have reversed the company’s course in the last couple of years. The company’s oncology portfolio grew revenue by 31% in constant currency terms in the first half of 2020, led by blockbusters Tagrisso, Imfinzi, and Lynparza, with sales gains of 45%, 52%, and 60%, respectively. Together, the drugs accounted for 30% of the company’s total revenue of $3.8 billion in the first half. All three are in multiple late-stage clinical trials for new indications, further expanding their markets.
Two recent launches in oncology may keep the company’s momentum going for years. Calquence is off to a fast start, generating $195 million in product sales in the first half. But the biggest winner in the long term could be Enhertu, a product of the company’s partnership with Daiichi Sankyo. Last year, market research firm EvaluatePharma estimated the collaboration to be one of the top three most valuable R&D programs in the industry. Enhertu has been approved for third-line treatment of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer and has been granted breakthrough therapy designation for metastatic gastric and non-small cell lung cancer as well.
The outlook for news events
Steady flows of positive drug trial results and regulatory approvals are always good for pharmaceutical stocks. While there’s never any guarantee that news will be positive, AstraZeneca’s 17 medicines in phase 3 trials could generate plenty of interest from investors. In the second half of 2020 and in 2021, the company expects data readouts from phase 3 trials in cancers of the lungs, liver, breast, head and neck, bladder, biliary tract, prostate, and leukemia, along with results from two late-stage studies of asthma drugs.
Regulatory approvals and submissions could also boost the stock later this year, and not just in oncology. The company is waiting for decisions in the U.S. on treatments for anemia stemming from chronic kidney disease and stroke. It also expects to apply for a new lupus drug in coming months. Any positive development in the COVID-19 vaccine or treatments is sure to win fans for the stock as well.
Strong growth should continue
AstraZeneca’s guidance for the full year is a bit conservative, given the strong growth in the first half. The company expects revenue to increase by high single-digit to low double-digit percentage and core earnings per share to grow in the mid to high teens. For 2021, analysts expect revenue growth of 14.5% and earnings per share to jump 31%.
Those growth rates put the company well ahead of most of its peers. The stock isn’t particularly cheap at 28 times expectations for next year’s earnings, but with a strong pipeline and a 2.5% dividend yield, it’s definitely worthy of consideration.