Merck’s Accelerated Keytruda Lung Cancer Approval Creates 3 Moves

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It is no secret that pharma and biotech shares have had to deal with at least some headwinds over the past year. It turns out that drug pricing concerns and political oversight can still be overlooked. In the case of Merck & Co. Inc. (NYSE: MRK), its Keytruda is getting accelerated in the first line nonsquamous, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) setting in combination with Eli Lilly and Co.’s (NYSE: LLY) Alimta, as well as carboplatin.

At least one firm sees this as a positive, and Merck shares are again within striking distance of a 52-week high. Credit Suisse’s Vamil Divan now expects Merck to trade up to the $66 to $67 range, as this now opens up a massive commercial opportunity where Merck can dominate for the rest of 2017.

Credit Suisse’s report said:

We are pleased (and relieved!) that Merck has received accelerated approval for the use of its key oncology product Keytruda in the first line nonsquamous, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) setting in combination with Lilly’s Alimta as well as carboplatin… While investors have been repeatedly asking us “what’s taking so long”, taking a step back allows one to appreciate that today’s approval shows how rapidly the FDA is really working to bring immuno-oncology (I-O) to patients… We reiterate our Outperform rating on Merck and continue to view it as our Top Pick in US Pharma.

Credit Suisse said that they would also expect Eli Lilly shares to trade up modestly on the news, and the firm is reiterating its Outperform rating on Eli Lilly as well.

Credit Suisse also maintained its Neutral rating on Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (NYSE: BMY) in that call. The view is that Bristol-Myers likely will see its shares trade lower on the news. The report noted that the opportunity for Opdivo in a second line NSCLC continues to shrink.

Credit Suisse’s positive bias for Merck here is that this approval nearly triples the number of U.S. patients that Keytruda is now approved for in the first line NSCLC setting. It was previously approved for approximately 35,000 patients annually, but now the population may be as much as 100,000 patients. The firm sees this action as setting the stage for Keytruda to show rapid sequential growth over the next several quarters.

According to Credit Suisse estimates, global Keytruda sales are now expected to increase to $777 million this quarter, $958 million in the third quarter and $1.2 billion in the fourth quarter — for a total of $3.53 billion for all of 2017.

Merck shares were last seen up 1.3% at $64.80, and it is a Dow Jones Industrial Average component with a $177 billion market cap. The 52-week trading range is $53.59 to $66.80, and the consensus analyst target price from Thomson Reuters is $68.95.

Eli Lilly shares were up 0.3% at $80.76, and its market cap is $85 billion. Shares have a 52-week range of $64.18 to $86.72 and a consensus target price of $89.10.

Shares of Bristol-Myers Squibb were last seen down 0.15% at $55.05, and its market cap is roughly $90 billion. The 52-week range is $46.01 to $77.12, and the consensus target price is $57.18.