Glaxo CEO: Consumer health can stand on its own, but don't expect a quick spinoff

GSK CEO Andrew Witty

Lately, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) CEO Andrew Witty has seemed open to splitting off the industry-leading consumer health joint venture he formed with Novartis ($NVS) last year. But let Witty be clear: It likely won't happen for a while.

Speaking in an interview on Bloomberg Television, Witty said that for the first time, jettisoning the unit "could be conceptually possible."

"That's a very substantial business," he said. "At some moment, that thing is going to be big enough to be conceptually thought about on its own."

But that doesn't mean it's necessarily happening--and even if it is, it's probably not happening right away. "Whether or not we ever do that, there are 100 different permutations," Witty said, noting that a spinoff probably wouldn't happen within the next year and a half.

And with Glaxo, industry-watchers know that spinoff talk doesn't necessarily mean the move is a sure bet. Earlier this year, the British drugmaker scrapped plans to spin off its HIV drugs division, ViiV Healthcare, pointing to the unit's recent sales surge as proof that "we were the best owners," as Witty put it on the company's Q3 conference call last year.

But if the company does follow through with a divestment, at least one prominent investor will celebrate. The U.K.'s Neil Woodford has been pressuring the company to consider a large-scale split, complaining that GSK is so complicated that it runs itself "like four FTSE 100 companies bolted together."

GSK's Moncef Slaoui

Even if Glaxo does set consumer health off on its own in the future, though, don't expect the same thing to happen with its vaccines business--another unit that gained serious scale as part of the Novartis deal. There's no rationale for splitting up vaccines and pharmaceuticals, Witty told Bloomberg, echoing recent comments from company vaccines head Moncef Slaoui.

"Separating those parts of the business, I think, would equate to a very, very significant loss of opportunity and a much, much higher cost structure," Slaoui told FiercePharma at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

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