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Pfizer Has Gotten Better at Developing Drugs. Here's Why

By Brian Orelli, PhD and Keith Speights - Feb 24, 2021 at 12:03PM

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The pharma giant is setting itself up for success, although a little luck also helps.

Pfizer (PFE 0.55%) presented some interesting statistics during its fourth-quarter earnings report that showed the company has increased its success rate for getting drugs through clinical development. In this video from Motley Fool Live, recorded on Feb. 8, Fool.com contributors Brian Orelli and Keith Speights discuss why Pfizer is having a change in fortune. While the company may actually be getting better than its peers, the pharma giant could just be getting lucky, and its choice of easier-to-treat diseases certainly helps boost its success rate.

Brian Orelli: Next up we have Pfizer and we talked a little bit about them last week, but there was a slide in the Pfizer's earnings report. Let me if I can share my screen here. That has to be the right one. Do you see that there? This five-year clinical success rate improvement. The big thing that stuck out to me was the phase 2, Pfizer through the 2020 had a 52% success rate compared to the industry which is only 29%, and then if you look through 2015, they were all the way down at 15%. So they went from 15% to 52% in the phase 2, and then the end-to-end, so start all the way through product registration, they were at 5% and industry average is 8% and then they're all the way up at 21% now. Do you think Pfizer is actually getting better than its peers? Or is it just lucky? Or are they picking diseases that are more likely to be successful and that is causing them to see that improvement?

Keith Speights: Yes, yes, and yes. That's probably the best answer. There's always some chance involved in things like this. Yeah. Pfizer's maybe getting a little luckier than they had been in the past. Although their luck isn't 100%; they've had some notable failures over the last year as well. I think some of it is due to just chance, sure. But I do think Pfizer is getting better and I think you hit on one of the reasons why they're getting better and they are focusing on diseases that they think they have a better probability of being successful. My take is that Pfizer's executive team saw how they were underperforming the industry and really said, "we need to do something different" and they did. They started to really take a harder look at the programs that they were investing in. I think that's what we're seeing here by and large is that their efforts have paid off. Now, what will be interesting to see, will this persist, well, over the next 5-10 years, will Pfizer's numbers be that much better than the industry? If they are, then I think we can say it's not due to chance very much at all. That's due to Pfizer just being better than they've been in the past and better than the other companies in the industry.

Orelli: Yeah. I think really dropping things like neuro diseases that are really tough. The Alzheimer's disease drugs, that sort of thing. I think that that probably is actually contributing a lot to this success.

Speights: That was one thing that had me too, Brian. I actually went and looked to see when is the last time Pfizer tried to do anything in the Alzheimer's space, and I think it went all the way back to 2012. I think they said "we're not going to go down that route anymore." The companies that have been going down that route by and large have not done very well.

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