AstraZeneca’s stock is soaring on COVID, but the pandemic has dented its growth


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AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant, is one of the leaders in the race to bring a COVID-19 vaccine to market, a position that has helped boost its stock to record highs and made it one of the most valuable companies in London’s FTSE 100 index.

But the company’s third-quarter earnings, released earlier this week, should be a reality check for investors.

While Pascal Soriot, the company’s chief executive officer, said AstraZeneca was on track to deliver results from Phase III clinical trials of its COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year, and discounted reports that the company will miss deadlines for delivering tens of millions of doses to the U.K. government, the link between the firm’s COVID-19 vaccine and its future earnings potential are tenuous at best.

After all, it is still unclear if the vaccine, which AstraZeneca is developing in partnership with scientists from the University of Oxford, will actually work.

Even if it does, AstraZeneca has promised to make no money from the vaccine until the pandemic is over—and it remains unclear how big a money spinner the vaccine will be in the longer term, even if the whole world requires an annual vaccination against the disease, similar to the seasonal flu. AstraZeneca has promised to keep the vaccine’s price low, at least in the developing world, in perpetuity. Analysts at Jefferies estimate that the vaccine might boost AstraZeneca’s shares by about 3% at most.

Instead, AstraZeneca’s future earnings potential is entirely predicated on its performance in three main areas: oncology; cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic disease; and respiratory illness and immunotherapy.

And here AstraZeneca’s third-quarter results should have been sobering. The pandemic, which has slowed diagnosis and treatment of some patients with serious medical conditions, has slowed AstraZeneca’s drug sales. The company’s revenues in the third quarter limped forward at just 3%, and its earnings narrowly missed analysts’ consensus forecasts.

Oncology has remained the company’s best-performing area, with revenues increasing 13% at constant exchange rates, lead by sales of Tagrisso, its lung cancer blockbuster, which saw revenues up 30% for the quarter compared with the same period in 2019. But sales in its cardiovascular and renal medicines were weaker, up just 8% in constant currency. Sales of its respiratory and immunology drugs, meanwhile, fell 12%.

The company has seen a string of regulatory approvals for its oncology and cardiovascular products this year, and it has a number of promising clinical trials underway for specialized cancer therapies, such as Lynparza, which may be successful in treating several different types of cancer, as well as breast cancer treatment Enhertu and blood cancer drug Calquence.

But the fact remains that while these medicines could be future blockbusters, there is not much in AstraZeneca’s current revenue and profit picture to underpin the 33% increase in the company’s share price since the start of the pandemic.

Soaring debt

Meanwhile, the company has continued to borrow heavily to meet its dividends and make big lump sum payments to joint-venture partners, such as Japanese pharma company Daiichi Sankyo, with which it is developing several cancer therapies: AstraZeneca’s net debt has climbed $1.86 billion so far this year.

In light of this, the sluggish growth in AstraZeneca’s top line may be particularly worrying, since Soriot’s strategy has been to spend heavily on R&D and partnerships to rebuild the company’s product pipeline, with the expectation that profits will eventually follow. Back in 2014, during its bruising effort to see off a hostile takeover attempt by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer, the CEO had promised shareholders that AstraZeneca would reach $45 billion in annual sales by 2023. With a current run rate of only $26 billion, the company has a long way to go.

The disconnect between AstraZeneca’s middling profit and cash flow growth and its rocketing share price is one reason some think the company may be eager to do a deal: using its richly-priced stock as currency to purchase a rival. That logic helped propel market rumors—neither confirmed nor denied by the company—that it approached U.S. drugmaker Gilead about a merger back in May. While that deal never materialized, a tie-up with another pharmaceutical company remains a distinct possibility.

Back in July, Soriot told Fortune that analysts who have been critical of the company’s valuation, pointing out its perennial weak cash flows and tendency to use disposals of legacy drug units to hit its earnings targets, were like people who “looked at their shoes rather than looking at the horizon.”

But, as this week’s earnings announcement shows, the horizon remains shrouded in fog—and the ground beneath the company’s feet is rough. AstraZeneca’s share price continues to rest on faith in Soriot’s vision and his soothing reassurances rather than on rock-solid fundamentals.

More must-read finance coverage from Fortune:

  • COVID-19 resurgence sets back Europe’s economic recovery hopes
  • The U.S. economy is slowly beginning to climb out of its deep hole
  • Stocks historically perform better under a divided Congress
  • Theft of $2.3M from GOP shows how campaigns are juicy targets for hackers
  • A journalist-turned-detective on how corporate America depends on private sleuths

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