GlaxoSmithKline has suffered a string of disappointments since the start of the year, prompting some Wall Street analysts to question the leadership of CEO Emma Walmsley. Now one hedge fund that’s known for its activist stance in biopharma and other industries is reportedly getting involved.
Hedge fund Elliott Management, which has a history of agitating for change at troubled biopharma companies, has taken a “significant” position in GSK, according to unnamed sources who spoke to the Financial Times. No further details were provided. GSK’s shares were up 5% in morning trading to $38.
Spokespeople for GSK and Elliott declined to comment.
The report comes amid an ongoing restructuring initiated by Walmsley, which involves splitting GSK into two companies—one focused on biopharma and the other on consumer products. The consumer spinoff was planned when GSK formed a joint venture with Pfizer in 2019, and the British drugmaker officially kicked off the two-year effort to split the companies in 2020.
But 2020 proved to be a tough year for GSK, as pandemic shutdowns caused people to put off routine vaccinations. That took a toll on the company’s vaccine sales and contributed to a disappointing profit haul for the year. Walmsley felt the pain, as her compensation fell from £8.1 million ($11.25 million) in 2019 to £7 million ($9.7 million) last year.
This year has gotten off to a rough start for GSK, too. In January, cancer hopeful bintrafusp alfa failed a key late-stage trial, and another drug in the company’s oncology pipeline, dostarlimab, suffered an inspection delay. Just yesterday, GSK announced it had halted a phase 2 trial of feladilimab, an immuno-oncology candidate it was testing with Merck’s Keytruda in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.
What's more, GSK's chief of vaccine research, Emmanuel Hanon, Ph.D., headed out the door after the company stumbled in its effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
SVB Leerink’s Geoffrey Porges raised alarm bells back in January, in a report questioning the ability of GSK to meet its stated goal of launching 10 potential blockbusters by 2026. In a note to investors, he called the company’s “serial disappointments” a “major concern for GSK’s medium- and long-term outlook."
Just how Elliott intends to muscle in on GSK’s strategy remains to be seen. But it could be an uncomfortable relationship, judging from the hedge fund’s recent history with other biopharma companies.
Elliott spent several years agitating for change at Alexion, for example, before that company was scooped up by AstraZeneca for $39 billion. In 2018, Elliott successfully lobbied for Alexion to add biotech expertise to its board. But then Elliott publicly blasted Alexion for purchasing Achillion for $930 million in 2019 and agreeing to buy troubled Portola for $1.4 billion last year.
And in 2018, Elliott reportedly took aim at Bayer, pressuring it to split its crop science and pharma businesses. Bayer didn’t cave to that demand, though it has been forced to undergo a series of cost-cutting moves, most recently unveiling a round of cutbacks aimed at slashing €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) in expenses by 2024.