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Sanofi makes case for experimental drugs in pipeline

Twenty-two days after ousting Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher, French drug giant Sanofi will make its case for investment in its pipeline of experimental medicines. What the Street may need to hear most is that the company has a plan.

"They should go the Dr. Phil route: 'We've heard your concerns, we understand how you feel, we will get you a plan, and this is it,'" said Les Funtleyder, a portfolio manager with E-Squared Asset Management. "If they go the traditional, 'We don't care what you think' route, investors aren't going to respond to that."


Sanofi
Eric Piermont | AFP | Getty Images

The market will be looking for visibility on the future direction of the company, where the board is headed and what the criteria are for a new CEO, said Nick Turner, an analyst with Mirabaud Securities.

"This will differ from what Sanofi wants to discuss, and it's a question of how they deal with it," Turner said. The company will put the focus on its slate of experimental drugs, including one for high cholesterol called alirocumab and a vaccine for Dengue fever. It'll also focus on the introduction to market of Afrezza, an inhaled insulin approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June.

Sanofi ousted Viehbacher on Oct. 29, a day after warning that growth in its big diabetes division would slow because of pricing pressure in the U.S. Chairman Serge Weinberg, who's serving as interim CEO, cited a lack of communication with the board and failure to execute on the company's strategy for Viehbacher's removal.

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The French drugmaker's shares slumped 11 percent on its diabetes outlook, and another 4.5 percent on the news of Viehbacher's dismissal. Since then the stock has gained 7.5 percent to about 76.50 euros, but hasn't reached its 83.40 euro level before the bad news.

As Sanofi puts a spotlight on areas of growth, investors will be seeking a cohesive strategy, analysts and investors say. While some of its potential new drugs, including alirocumab and dupilumab for asthma, have the potential to reach 1 billion euros in annual revenue, "Sanofi's pipeline is a bit of a hodgepodge," Turner said.

Though the company is currently strong in diabetes, its pipeline doesn't reflect growth in the space, he said. It also trails competitors like AstraZeneca, Roche and Novartis in cancer. The company may look to increase its presence in rare diseases, building on its 2011 acquisition of Genzyme, but major merger activity is unlikely without a CEO in place, Turner said.

"If nobody's in charge, the chances of them doing a deal are unlikely," Funtleyder said. "Who's there to green-light a transaction?"

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Questions will continue to swirl around who's likely to take the helm next, with the main focus on whether the candidate will be French. Viehbacher is German and Canadian, and his efforts to internationalize the French company were said to ruffle feathers—though Weinberg has said repeatedly that Sanofi will seek the best candidates regardless of nationality.

Names have circulated from AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot to GlaxoSmithKline vaccine chief Moncef Slaoui to former Wyeth chief Bernard Poussot. And as the focus at Sanofi's event Thursday, held at its Genzyme headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is new medicines, analysts and investors will continue to seek direction, Funtleyder said.

"Wall Street likes certainty," he said. "They need a plan and they need to execute on the plan."