Will Sanofi get the Crown?

After nine years as the world’s biggest maker of medicines, Pfizer is set to cede its crown next year to a company that a decade ago few would have predicted to be leading the pharma league tables – Sanofi.

Sanofi is expected to retain the top spot until at least 2016 with Pfizer relegated to third place, behind Novartis, toppled by the loss of mega-blockbuster drug Lipitor, consensus sales forecasts from EvaluatePharma show. The French drug maker has raced up the rankings over the last decade largely through acquisition, culminating in its $20bn swoop on US biotechnology specialist Genzyme, which assisted in securing pole position.

Shifting fortunes

Pfizer’s $68bn acquisition of Wyeth in 2009 went a long way to alleviate the pain of the impending loss of Lipitor but the cholesterol-lowering statin is a huge product to replace. Global sales peaked at $13.4bn in 2008 – setting the record for the biggest selling medicine – but the loss of US patent protection in November means sales will shrink to $2bn by 2016, according to EvaluatePharma.

Still, a couple of recent pipeline successes, including RA pill tofacitinib and Eliquis, the blood thinner partnered with Bristol-Myers Squibb, mean analysts expect Pfizer’s top line drug sales will start growing again come 2016.

Despite buying Schering-Plough for $41bn in 2009, Merck & Co is seen struggling to expand its drugs business over the next four years, with below average 1% annual sales growth predicted, letting faster growing Europeans GlaxoSmithKline and Roche climb ahead.

Domestic peer Johnson & Johnson is seen faring better. The diversified firm, which derives less than half of its revenues from prescription and over-the-counter medicines, is expected to benefit from a series of recent pipeline successes although its drugs arm remains substantially smaller than the five biggest pharma companies.

Novartis is expected to be Sanofi’s closest challenger on the pharmaceutical front over the next few years, with strong sales growth from Gilenya and Tasigna offset by the loss of patent protection for Diovan next year. Novartis’ recently completed $48bn acquisition of Alcon is mostly helping the group’s topline sales in areas outside of prescription and OTC drugs.