AstraZeneca, Britain's second-biggest pharmaceuticals group, has agreed to buy its small US counterpart Omthera for $323m, or $12.70 a share. Omthera specialises in fish-oil-derived heart medicine and its most promising product, Epanova, attacks triglycerides, fats in the blood that cause heart disease. The drug has completed clinical trials but is still awaiting final US regulatory clearance. This purchase is the latest in a series of deals between major drug groups and small, promising pharma or biotech companies.
What the commentators said
Anyone who bought into Omthera's US flotation six weeks ago is sitting on a return of 50%, said Andrew Clark in The Times. As for Astra, anything in the obesity or diabetes area "is a smart bet in the drugs world". But "you can't help wondering" if Astra could have bought it for less if it had spotted it before it went public.
As it is, it seems to have paid "vastly over the odds for companies which have potential but not much beyond that", said James Moore in The Independent. Astra has been on an acquisition spree designed to buy its way out of trouble. Revenues at big pharma firms have sagged as more and more key drugs are coming off-patent. But even if the products of its "new playthings" turn out to be winners, Astra still has to show that it can exploit them. "Big companies sometimes struggle to do that."
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The longer-term prospects for the sector look solid as populations age and Asia grows richer, said Emma Rowley in The Daily Telegraph. For now, though, pharma is struggling to grow due to the patent cliff'. There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, said Helen Thomas in The Wall Street Journal. In 2012, more drugs were approved in America than in any year since 1997. But revamping research and development, and thus boosting drug pipelines, "is a long-term slog". Much of the industry, and certainly Astra, "will be cliff-jumping for some time yet".
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