Valeant, BioMarin, Hospira churn up pharma's biggest H1 stock gains

The first half of 2015 is over and done, and as companies prep their earnings releases, we're looking at a different sort of scorecard: the one filled out by investors. In the realm of stock performance, some big drugmakers delivered big gains over the first half of the year.

Valeant CEO J. Michael Pearson

The top performer? M&A-happy Valeant Pharmaceuticals ($VRX), which topped the entire healthcare industry for first-half stock gains. Valeant shares zoomed upward by almost 57% for the first 6 months of 2015, ending the period at $227.94. Over that timeframe, Valeant beat on Q1 earnings, hiked its forecasts for the year, bragged about 15% organic growth, and inked not one but two deals: Salix Pharmaceuticals, a $11.1 billion buyout; and Dendreon's prostate cancer med Provenge, which it bought out of bankruptcy. 

Next up, BioMarin ($BMRN) and its 48% gain, which took its shares up to $136.46. Often the subject of takeover rumors, BioMarin saw its shares climb in late March on chatter about a potential (yet unlikely, as events would prove) Shire ($SHPG) buyout. JP Morgan analysts tagged the California-based company as a winner for 2015, pointing to its growing portfolio of marketed drugs, late-stage pipeline and rare-disease focus. The company filed its much-watched muscular dystrophy med for FDA approval in April; a decision is due by year's end. Plus, as the second quarter neared its close, BioMarin rolled out Phase II data on its dwarfism drug, BMN-111, sending its shares up 8%.

Hospira ($HSP), the injectables specialist Pfizer ($PFE) agreed to buy earlier this year for $15 billion, delivered a 42.5% gain for the first half, ending the period at $88.85. Pfizer's $90-per-share buyout price doesn't leave much room for Hospira shares to move upward while it's still a standalone play. The company's shareholders approved Pfizer's offer in mid-May, putting the deal on track to close during the second half.

A much smaller company took fourth place among pharma investors in the first half: Incyte ($INCY), whose new rare disease therapy Jakafi, sold in partnership with Novartis ($NVS), is pegged as a blockbuster. In mid-June, Incyte and partner Eli Lilly & Co. ($LLY) rolled out promising Phase III data on a new rheumatoid arthritis drug, baricitinib. And Incyte has a slate of Big Pharma partners testing its cancer immunotherapy epacadostat alongside their own immuno-oncology meds.

Rounding out the top 5 is Novo Nordisk ($NVO), the Danish diabetes specialist. Its 29% gain for the first half took shares up to $55.50. The company beat Q1 earnings expectations handily, but other news dominated the year so far: Novo resubmitted its long-acting insulin Tresiba for FDA approval in April, which means it could hit the U.S. market 6 months earlier than expected. Its experimental oral version of the injectable GLP-1 drug semaglutide--a potential game-changer in a field full of injectables--delivered promising results in a Phase II trial. And its purported CEO-in-waiting, Kåre Schultz, decamped for the top spot at Lundbeck, prompting current chief Lars Rebien Sørensen to recommit to a few more years at the helm.

Other top 10 performers? Fast-growing biotech Regeneron ($REGN), with a 23% increase; a resurgent Eli Lilly with 20.78%; closely followed by hep C heavyweight Gilead Sciences ($GILD) at 20.76%. Then there's Mallinckrodt ($MNK) at 18.9% and Biogen ($BIIB) at 17.6%.

Special Reports: The top 15 pharma companies by 2014 revenue - Gilead Sciences - Eli Lilly