In recent months there's been a whirlwind of investor attention on stocks of companies fighting COVID-19. Gilead Sciences, Moderna, Novavax, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals are just a few of them.
All of these biotechs have made, and continue to make, impressive progress in developing therapies and vaccines for COVID-19. But there's one coronavirus-focused stock that I think you'll really want to watch right now. It's a 144-year-old big pharma company that has turned out to be a lean, mean COVID-19 machine.
What is this must-watch stock? Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY).
Lilly wasted no time in finding a partner to team up with on developing an antibody therapy targeting COVID-19. On March 12, the big drugmaker announced that it was co-developing antibody therapies for COVID-19 with privately held AbCellera.
AbCellera itself hadn't wasted any time getting moving, either. Within one week of obtaining a blood sample from one of the first U.S. patients to recover from COVID-19, the company had screened over 5 million immune cells, and soon thereafter identified more than 500 fully human antibody sequences.
In the announcement of Lilly's partnership with AbCellera, Lilly chief scientific officer Daniel Skovronsky said, "We are moving at top speed to create a potential treatment to help patients." He wasn't kidding. By June 1, Lilly and AbCellera had already dosed the first patients in a phase 1 clinical study evaluating LY-CoV555, the first antibody from the two companies' collaboration, and the first potential antibody treatment designed to fight COVID-19 that entered human clinical trials.
Lilly expects to review results from this phase 1 study later in June, and will then move forward with additional, broader clinical trials. It also plans to crank up large-scale manufacturing for LY-CoV555 even before full safety and efficacy results are known.
But wait, there's more
If you think that Lilly was content to put all of its eggs in AbCellera's basket, think again. On April 10, the drugmaker announced that it entered into an agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to evaluate Olumiant (baricitinib) in an adaptive COVID-19 study. Olumiant is a blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis drug developed by Lilly and Incyte. On May 8, NIAID began testing Olumiant in combination with Gilead's antiviral drug remdesivir.
Lilly also announced on April 10 that it would test its experimental drug LY3127804 in treating COVID-19 patients with pneumonia who are at a higher risk of developing acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). The phase 2 study began a few weeks later.
Shortly afterward, Lilly found another partner with promising COVID-19 antibody research. On May 4, the company announced that it would co-develop COVID-19 antibody therapies with Chinese biotech Junshi Biosciences. At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Junshi immediately launched its effort to develop a treatment, and quickly engineered several neutralizing antibodies for the novel coronavirus.
It didn't take long for Lilly and Junshi to move to clinical testing of their lead candidate. On June 8, Lilly announced that its second potential COVID-19 antibody had begun a phase 1 clinical study. Junshi dosed the first study participant in China, with Lilly planning to follow up with dosing patients in the U.S.
Lilly's strategy is to develop antibodies both as monotherapies and as part of "cocktails" to treat COVID-19. The lead antibodies from AbCellera and Junshi that are currently being tested will be included in the cocktails, plus additional antibodies that are in preclinical development.
The rest of the story
While Lilly is racing ahead with its COVID-19 efforts, the company's core business is firing on all cylinders. Lilly easily topped Wall Street estimates in the first quarter, with the pandemic even boosting its results.
The pharma company remains a leader in the diabetes market, with Trulicity and Jardiance enjoying strong momentum. It's also a major player in immunology, thanks to continued success for Olumiant and Taltz.
Lilly's oncology lineup is also performing solidly. Breast-cancer drug Verzenio is picking up tremendous momentum. Cyramza, which is approved for treating several types of solid tumors, is another rising star.
In addition, Lilly boasts a promising pipeline, with seven programs currently awaiting regulatory approvals and 16 late-stage programs. These late-stage pipeline candidates notably include immunology drug mirikizumab, pain drug tanezumab, and diabetes/obesity drug tirzepatide.
One to watch
Wall Street analysts project that Lilly will be able to generate average annual earnings growth of more than 12% over the next five years. Combining this growth with the company's dividend yield of nearly 2% should enable the drugmaker to deliver market-beating total returns.
But it's quite possible that analysts are being too conservative. If Lilly's COVID-19 antibody therapies prove to be safe and effective at both treating and preventing the novel coronavirus disease, the opportunities for the company should be much greater. Regardless of what happens, I think that Lilly is a pharma stock to watch closely.