AbbVie, Eli Lilly lead Big Pharma's 2020 market cap growth as Merck, Gilead lag

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As of end of 2020, AbbVie enjoyed the largest market cap gain over 2019 among the top 10 pharma companies by market cap, while Merck suffered the biggest loss. (oatawa/Getty Images via Newscred)

COVID-19 products aren’t guarantees of market cap growth at biopharma companies these days—and a lack of them doesn’t deprive a drugmaker, either—if a year-end comparison between 2020 and 2019 is any indication.

Among the top 10 companies with the largest market cap as of the end of 2020, AbbVie enjoyed the biggest year-over-year growth—a whopping 44.4% to $189.2 billion, according to numbers compiled by GlobalData. The Illinois pharma doesn’t have any prominent COVID products.

In contrast, COVID-19 vaccine makers Pfizer and AstraZeneca both failed to beat their pre-COVID market valuation. It’s worth noting that Gilead Sciences, which sells the only fully FDA-approved COVID drug, Veklury, also saw its market cap drop—by 11.2% in its case—though it’s not a member of the top 10 class.

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AbbVie's growth fuel

Of course, AbbVie’s year-over-year growth has its mid-year absorption of Allergan to thank, but the company’s quarterly market cap growth over the third quarter also checked in at an impressive 22.4%, again the biggest among the top 10 list by market cap size.

AbbVie does have one drug in COVID-19 trials: The experimental nonalcoholic steatohepatitis drug cenicriviroc is in testing for potentially life-threatening immune overreactions seen in serious COVID-19 patients. But it’s far from a stock market mover yet.

RELATED: AbbVie's immunology newbies Skyrizi and Rinvoq pick up the slack from declining Humira, but safety questions dog execs

But the real drivers of AbbVie’s stock movement are its newly launched immunology drugs Skyrizi and Rinvoq. And the opportune timing of positive news flow for the drugs definitely boosted the company’s stock performance toward the end of 2020.

In December, AbbVie said Rinvoq had topped Sanofi’s blockbuster Dupixent at clearing the skin of patients with atopic dermatitis in a phase 3b trial. AbbVie management also significantly dialed up their 2025 sales expectation for the drugs to a combined $15 billion from the previous $10 billion.

A COVID-19 surge for some

During the early days of the pandemic, almost all biopharma companies’ stock prices took a hit. But news of R&D work—and later regulatory authorizations—on COVID-19 products have helped several drugmakers recover.

Eli Lilly, which just won an FDA emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 antibody cocktail, saw a 28% year-over-year market cap growth to $161.5 billion. Roche, whose diagnostics business enjoyed a COVID testing boost, saw its market cap move 11.2% upward to $301.8 billion.

RELATED: All eyes on Regeneron's COVID-19 antibodies, but Dupixent's still driving the bus

And Johnson & Johnson, which just filed its COVID vaccine for FDA authorization, enjoyed a 7.9% increase in market cap and topped the class with a value of $414.4 billion at the end of 2020.

Lilly’s 2020 market-cap growth was the work of its first FDA authorization for COVID antibody bamlanivimab as a single agent and a subsequent U.S. government order for an additional 650,000 doses, plus the strong performance of GLP-1 diabetes drug Trulicity, GlobalData said. On that note, Novo Nordisk—thanks to its fast-growing rival GLP-1 drugs Ozempic and Rybelsus—had its market cap jump 18.3% over year-end 2019.

RELATED: Gilead sees a blockbuster 2021 for COVID-19 drug Veklury but can grow without it: CFO

Regeneron, which developed the COVID antibody cocktail REGN-COV2 that was touted by former President Donald Trump, also posted major market cap growth year over year at the end of 2020—an impressive 27.4%. But its Q4 tally marked a 13.4% quarterly decline from Q3, despite the COVID drug winning an FDA authorization in late November.

Industry watchers see Regeneron's COVID offering as a better option than Lilly's, especially when it comes to fighting emerging virus variants. But GlobalData noted that the drug’s market opportunity is shrinking as vaccine rollouts compressed the need for therapeutics.

COVID-19 didn't help Gilead for long

Gilead also knows that COVID alone won’t be enough to drive longer-term stock price growth. The company’s COVID antiviral Veklury, better known as remdesivir, drew a lot of attention before vaccines were available.

But as the initial enthusiasm waned, Gilead’s stock price slipped into a steady decline for the second half of 2020. The company’s stock price did tick upward in the first few weeks of 2021, probably buoyed by news that the drug generated $2.8 billion sales last year and is expected to deliver a similar figure this year.

Merck also landed on the market cap drop list, with a decrease of 10.5% year over year. But that came off nearly an all-time high at the end of 2019. Its PD-1 immuno-oncology rival Bristol Myers Squibb suffered a milder 6.8% decline.