Analysts play fantasy pharma merger

The merger matchmakers have hit the mainstream media with their pharma-combo predictions. In what the New York Times likens to a fantasy football game, analysts are lining up potential acquirers on one side and likely targets on the other--and proceeding to draw their plays.

On the buyer side, analysts put Merck, Sanofi-Aventis (which has wrapped up its Zentiva buy) and Johnson & Johnson. GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis have enough cash to do a big deal, but their CEOs have said they're not interested in mega-mergers. Eli Lilly is still digesting ImClone Systems.

On the other side there's Bristol-Myers Squibb and Schering Plough, plus a bunch of smaller companies with attractive prospects. And analysts say AstraZeneca could either be a buyer or a seller, depending on the circumstances.

The most likely pairs are companies that are already collaborating, either in a late-stage development relationship or in cahoots on an already marketed drug. Merck and Schering-Plough, anybody? They're working together in cholesterol land. Or maybe Merck would rather go biotech with Gilead Sciences, which specializes in HIV drugs. AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb, maybe? Johnson & Johnson and Vertex Pharmaceuticals?

As you well know, the game can go on and on. Analysts seem to have an unlimited appetite for deal speculation. But wait: is that Tim Anderson saying big deals might already be passé? "Honestly, looking at Pfizer-Wyeth, I think a lot of companies are fearful if they do a big acquisition," the Sanford C. Bernstein analyst told the Times. What's your say?

- read the NYT article