I’m very optimistic that we will see a successful vaccine for the novel coronavirus launch within a few months. Still, the stocks of the smaller vaccine makers have already soared, so they may not be the best pharmaceutical stocks to buy at this point.
Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) haven’t climbed too much, but they are gargantuan companies. And Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have vowed not to profit from their vaccines while the pandemic continues.
Further, the degree to which the vaccines will work and how long they will keep people immune from the coronavirus are uncertain. And what happens if the coronavirus disappears more quickly than we expect?
Given these points, I think it is probably too late to make big profits from the vaccine makers. As a result, I don’t think they are good pharmaceutical stocks to buy now.
Consequently, I believe that investors are better off buying coronavirus plays within the pharma sector other than the vaccine makers. Here are four pharmaceutical stocks to buy in that category:
- West Pharmaceutical Services (NYSE:WST)
- Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD)
- Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:REGN)
- Sorrento Therapeutics (NASDAQ:SRNE)
Pharmaceutical Stocks: West Pharmaceutical (WST)
West Pharmaceutical makes stoppers, seals and syringe components. And importantly, it also develops “custom solutions” for injectable drugs.
Trading with a market capitalization of $20.8 billion, West is clearly a huge player when it comes to supplying equipment for intravenous drugs. As a result, I am not surprised that — as the company disclosed during its second-quarter conference call — multiple makers of coronavirus vaccines are among its customers.
On the call, CEO Eric Green said:
“We’re helping our customers in the selection, testing and verification of components. We’re doing this in a way that prepares our customers for the future commercial scale up and launch of any successful vaccine candidates.”
Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people are likely to receive coronavirus vaccines. And West is ready to supply much of the equipment to actually inject those vaccines.
The fact that West is spending time and money on developing vaccine components indicates that it is confident that it will generate meaningful revenue and profits from the endeavor. Also positive is commentary from Green. On the conference call, he indicated the company was prepared to provide equipment for at least hundreds of millions of doses.
The forward price-earnings ratio of 67 times sounds high, but it is actually pretty low for a company set to benefit tremendously from the launch of coronavirus vaccines.
Gilead Sciences (GILD)
In the first month or two after vaccines are ready, only the most vulnerable members of society are likely to receive doses. Further, some people with weak immune systems may not be able to ever receive vaccines. And of course, particularly if there is a second wave of the virus in the fall and winter, millions of people are likely to have it for at least a couple of months after vaccines are introduced.
Also likely to boost the results of coronavirus treatment makers is stockpiling. Nations will probably collectively buy successful coronavirus treatments in case a different strain surfaces. Given all of these points, buying GILD stock definitely makes sense.
In a previous article on Gilead, I argued that its remdesivir clearly helped moderately ill patients. Specifically, I wrote, “1.3% of the patients who received the drug died, versus 2% of those who did not receive it. And just 0.25% of the patients who received remdesivir were on ventilators or an ECMO machine, versus 2% for those who did not receive the drug.
Apparently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agreed with me. The agency approved the drug for the treatment of patients with moderate cases. Remdesivir had previously been approved for use in patients with severe cases of the virus. Further, Gilead is testing inhaled versions of remdesivir that could be given to patients before they have been admitted to the hospital.
As I noted in my previous column, I expect the company to sell $10 billion of remdesivir this year, excluding royalties from generic drug makers. For context, its total 2019 revenue came in at $22.5 billion. As a result, I think that the revenue from remdesivir will ultimately lift GILD stock meaningfully.
Pharmaceutical Stocks: Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (REGN)
Regeneron is developing a single treatment consisting of two antibodies. The company thinks that the cocktail may both cure and prevent the coronavirus. It is looking to release data on the antibodies by the end of September.
On its earnings conference call, Regeneron Chief Science Officer George Yancopoulos noted that, in lab studies, the antibodies thwarted the virus’ spike protein. The double-antibody approach prevents the virus from overcoming the impact of a single antibody through mutation, he explained. Yancopoulos also noted that, in monkeys, the antibodies were able to prevent coronavirus infection as effectively as vaccines.
In addition to the positive preclinical data, there are two other reasons to be optimistic on Regeneron’s antibodies. First, the company was previously able to develop antibodies that effectively treat the Ebola virus. Second, the federal government has already signed a $450 million contract with Regeneron “to manufacture and supply” the antibodies.
Although the deal appears to be contingent on emergency approval by the FDA, the fact that the government is willing to invest a meaningful amount of money in manufacturing the drug after it is approved indicates that Washington has significant confidence in Regeneron.
Sorrento Therapeutics (SRNE)
Sorrento has many shots on goal when it comes to combating the coronavirus — the company has a test, multiple therapies and a vaccine candidate.
By far the most promising arrow in its quiver, though, is the coronavirus test it bought from Columbia University. As I’ve explained in previous columns, the test, which evaluates saliva, does not require lab equipment or a health professional. Importantly, it generates results within 30 minutes. Consequently, the diagnostic, which may cost only $10, should be a cheap and relatively fast alternative for many businesses, hospitals and schools.
Recently, a competing test from Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) received a great deal of publicity. I pointed out, however, that the test is more invasive. Although it yields results in 15 minutes, it requires a nasal swab, making it quite uncomfortable.
Further, since a medical professional has to administer the test, I believe that it will be much more expensive. The rival test from Sorrento seems simple enough for use by those without medical backgrounds. Another positive? Sorrento’s test also helps identifies those who have the virus but are asymptomatic.
And as I noted previously, I believe that the company’s coronavirus treatments could generate significant revenue in the future, while its recent merger with SmartPharm is also likely to boost Sorrento’s shares in the long term.
On the date of publication, Larry Ramer held a long position in WST, GILD, and SRNE.
Larry has conducted research and written articles on U.S. stocks for 13 years. He has been employed by The Fly and Israel’s largest business newspaper, Globes. Among his highly successful contrarian picks have been solar stocks, Roku, and Snap. You can reach him on StockTwits at @larryramer. Larry began writing columns for InvestorPlace in 2015.