What's the gleam in Sanofi CEO's eye? Could be Q2--or a canny PCSK9 maneuver

Sanofi CEO Chris Viehbacher

See Sanofi's second-quarter results? You'll notice a spark of new life at the French drugmaker, which hiked its forecast for the year, thanks to stalwart diabetes meds, fast-growing rare disease products, an emerging markets recovery, and solid action in consumer health.

"There's enough to be positive on," Barclays analyst Michael Leuchten wrote in a note to investors. "[S]olid 2Q results," said Leerink Partners' Seamus Fernandez. "[G]enuinely encouraging," commented Deutsche Bank's Mark Clark. All on a 5% increase in first-half sales and 10% hike in earnings per share--and the fact that Sanofi's "growth drivers" accounted for more than three-fourths of quarterly sales, at €6.2 billion out of the €8.1 billion total.

Of course, numbers never tell the full story. Sanofi's ($SNY) top-selling drug, the diabetes treatment Lantus, turned in 16% growth for the quarter, to €1.56 billion. Unfortunately, a Lantus biosimilar from Eli Lilly ($LLY) and Boehringer Ingelheim is waiting in the wings, ready to make its debut in Europe.

Good thing that biosim is held back in the U.S. by a patent lawsuit. Lantus sales in the States grew 20% for the quarter, and the U.S. is by far the drug's biggest market. Unfortunately, the Lantus numbers also depended largely on price increases, and U.S. payers are losing their appetite for that, CEO Chris Viehbacher noted.

And not just for Lantus. "The U.S. is becoming a little bit more unsettled in terms of pricing," he said. "There's certainly a much greater competitive situation going on at payor level. That bears watching and that would be my only point of caution for the future."

On the flip side for Sanofi's diabetes franchise, there's the fact that most of the Lantus' U.S. sales came from Sanofi's SoloStar pen, which is patented on its own, and could keep brand-level prices coming even after competition arises. There's the fact that Toujeo, the Lantus follow-up, is now under review at the FDA.

And then there's vaccines. That business looks a bit lackluster for the first half of the year. But it's on the upswing, Viehbacher promises, with double-digit sales growth coming in the second half. Among the drivers of that growth will be "a very successful" flu season in the U.S., he figures (as quoted by Reuters).

Take another look at Sanofi's second-quarter sales breakdown, and it's obvious why the French drugmaker might unload its aging products. Only one of the drugs bearing the dull-but-revealing label "Other Pharmaceutical Products" managed to eke out any growth for the quarter. That was Lovenox, the IV blood thinner, with 0.5%. Most of the rest--once the backbones of Sanofi sales--sport double-digit drops, thanks to patent losses.

But as Viehbacher said during Thursday's analyst call, selling off that portfolio won't be easy. Private equity firms and pharma buyers have shopped the deal, yes. But investment firms have found it tough to whip up drug portfolios, even if they can bundle them into drugmakers they already control. As for other drug industry buyers? Most of the biggies are thinking about selling their own mature meds. Generics-focused companies like Mylan ($MYL), which is said to be eyeing Sanofi's portfolio, tend to be cheapskates. A good price for them wouldn't necessarily be a good price for Sanofi. It's a conundrum across the industry, Viehbacher said: "Everybody is talking to everybody" about how to handle their mature drugs.

Why? Cash. Though the stream of sales is dwindling, those products still accounted for almost €1.5 billion of Sanofi's Q2 revenue. It's a conundrum, Viehbacher said. "It would be nice to find a solution for the products but they generate an awful lot of cashflow," he said. "Trying to find a solution for them that actually maintains the cashflow is not always easy."

Now, look more closely. Is that spark matched by a gleam in CEO Christopher Viehbacher's eye? He has another plan up his sleeve for keeping the sales growing, despite generic competition and pricing woes. That plan involves passing cholesterol-drug rivals in the FDA fast lane. Aiming to be first to market with its PCSK9 drug, alirocumab, the company and its partner, Regeneron ($REGN), paid $67.5 million for a voucher that will speed up FDA review.

If approved, the new drug could beat Amgen's ($AMGN) out of the gate, or at least match it. Till now, California-based Amgen had a handy lead. And if safety questions don't haunt the drug class, it could amount to $10 billion, with Sanofi taking at least a billion of that.

- read the Sanofi release
- get more from Reuters

Special Reports: Top 10 drugmakers in emerging markets - Sanofi | Top 10 pharma companies by 2013 revenue - Sanofi

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