Dealmaking in 2020: navigating a new landscape

After a slow start to the year, dealmaking for the rest of 2020 is likely to be profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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BioPharma Dealmakers

While many companies are facing exceptional challenges in finding partners and bringing deals to completion owing to the current coronavirus crisis, it has also triggered a wave of partnering as organizations rapidly sign deals to accelerate the development of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics to control the pandemic. In this feature, we explore mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and licensing activity in 2020 so far, based on data provided by Evaluate Ltd.

M&A trends
Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, M&A activity was already down compared with last year. There were 19 acquisitions announced in the first quarter of 2020 (Fig. 1a)—a few less in terms of numbers compared with the first quarter in 2019, but with less than half the total value, at just $6.2 billion compared with $16.5 billion. Indeed, Q1 has typically been the quarter with the highest-value deals of the corresponding year in the past 5 years (Fig. 1b), but the only two major M&As announced in this period in 2020 were Eli Lilly’s $1.1 billion deal for the dermatology company Dermira in January and Gilead’s $4.9 billion acquisition of the cancer immunotherapy biotech Forty Seven
in early March. There have been two major M&As so far in the second quarter of the year, Menarini’s $677 million acquisition of Stemline Therapeutics followed by Alexion Pharmaceuticals purchase of Portola Pharmaceuticals for $1.4 billion, but pending deals could be at risk of delayed closure, renegotiation or termination owing to COVID-19. M&A numbers and values could therefore drop substantially compared with recent years.

Licensing trends

Licensing activity in the first quarter of 2020 was also down, with 30 deals—the lowest by number in the past 5 years (Fig. 2a). With combined upfront payments worth $1.96 billion, it was also the lowest-value first quarter since 2017 (Fig. 2b). The largest deal of the first quarter by upfront payment was Incyte’s licensing of exclusive ex-US rights from MorphoSys to develop and commercialize tafasitamab, a CD19-targeted monoclonal antibody that has been filed for regulatory approval for the treatment of B cell malignancies (Table 1). In addition to a $750 million upfront payment, Incyte also made a $150 million equity investment in MorphoSys, and MorphoSys could receive up to $1.1 billion in milestone payments, plus tiered royalties. Continuing the trend of recent years, there were also several other major deals in the oncology area at a much earlier development stage, with correspondingly smaller upfront payments (Table 1). Merck & Co.’s potential $2.55 billion deal with Taiho Pharmaceutical and Astex Pharmaceuticals focuses on development of small-molecule inhibitors against several drug targets, including the KRAS oncogene, which is currently one of the hottest anticancer targets. Genentech entered into a potential $1.7 billion collaboration with Bicycle Therapeutics to discover and develop bicyclic drug candidates for immuno-oncology applications.

And finally, in the only major deal in the second quarter, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Biotech announced a potential $3 billion partnership with Fate Therapeutics to develop cancer immunotherapies derived from induced pluripotent stem cells.

Pandemic spurs partnering

Although dealmaking overall has been subdued in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a flurry of collaborations at a record pace, driven by the urgent need for treatments and vaccines. In addition to multiple vaccine partnerships involving major pharma companies, such as Sanofi, GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and AstraZeneca (see the feature on pB18), many collaborations have also been established around potential treatment options. Vir Biotechnology has been one of the most prolific dealmakers following its discovery of two antibodies targeting the virus’s spike protein, signing deals with WuXi, Alnylam, Xencor, the NIH, Biogen and GSK for various antibodies and RNA interference (RNAi) therapeutics, as well as vaccines. Other notable coronavirus-related business development activities focus on plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19, including deals between XBiotech and BioBridge, and Amgen and Adaptive that seek to identify neutralizing antibodies to develop as a treatment. Over the next few months, the pandemic’s full effects on dealmaking and the industry as a whole will become clearer.

Acknowledgements
The authors would like to acknowledge Evaluate Ltd. for providing both the M&A and licensing data. COVID-19 XWG-03



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BioPharma Dealmakers

From the publishers of Nature, BioPharma Dealmakers brings together life sciences companies and individuals looking to identify and attract partners and dealmaking opportunities. With a quarterly magazine that is distributed in Nature Biotechnology and Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, BioPharma Dealmakers provides insights into dealmaking trends and profiles from companies looking to partner – showcasing their pipeline products, technologies, therapeutic focus and partnering strategies.

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