Studying the numbers on new-drug launches is a bit like parsing sports statistics. Some athletes are consistent-if-not-inspiring performers; others have hot streaks that run cold. Others take a while--years, even--to find their stride. Same goes for drugmakers.
Just take a look at two new rankings from Matthew Herper at Forbes. Drugmakers sorted by the number of new meds they've produced over the past 60 years, and then sorted by the number they've launched in the past decade. Side by side, the lists show a lot of movement; some companies near the bottom of the long-term list are tops for the last 10 years, and vice-versa. Novartis ($NVS), for instance, tops the short-term list and lies near the bottom of the longer one (more on that in a minute, though). And then there's Merck ($MRK), which tops the long-term list and comes in 4th on the 10-year list, a pretty stable position.
To come closer to an apples-to-apples comparison, however, you have to do some math, thanks to all the consolidation in the drug business. Consider Novartis: From 2000 to 2010, the Swiss drugmaker racked up 17 new drug approvals, more than any other drugmaker. But over the past 60 years, the company has accounted for only 16--but together with its predecessors, Ciba and Sandoz, got 49 drugs approved. That's still far from the top of the list, however; more of a middle-of-the-pack performance. So Novartis has moved up in the world, but not quite as far.
Or look at Pfizer. Over the decade ending in 2010, the company counted 9 new meds. With Pharmacia, which it closed on in 2003, contributing three, and Wyeth, the 2009 buyout, contributing 7 more, that's a total of 19. The long-term list puts Pfizer alone at 44, but with Wyeth, Upjohn, and Warner-Lambert, at 145. Both sums would put Pfizer on top for new drugs. Too bad megamergers don't end up working like simple math. But that's another story.