Half a million people die each year from malaria, but help -- 30 years in the making -- may be on the way for this neglected disease, as GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) recently cleared an important hurdle. This is great news for sub-Saharan people, those most affected by malaria, but is it good news for investors?
Mosquirix, the trade name for Glaxo's malaria vaccine, received a positive scientific opinion on July 24 from the Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use of the European Medicines Agency. This is a key step in the regulatory process and goes a long way toward making the drug available for the prevention of malaria. Mosquirix must still receive approval from the World Health Organization, which could happen by year's end; expectations are that Glaxo will begin marketing the drug by this time next year.
Not a panacea, but still a significant stride forward
Efforts have been long under way to find a cure for malaria. Glaxo's anti-malarial drug has been in development for 30 years. While this drug is a huge step forward, it has only been shown to be moderately effective in the prevention of malaria.
Typically, most immunization drugs have at least an 80% effectiveness rate; however, trials of Mosquirix indicate roughly a 50% efficacy rate for children aged 5 months to 18 months, and it is even less effective for infants aged 6 weeks to 12 weeks. The usefulness of the drug is relatively short-lived, as only about one-third of those immunized remain protected from the disease after four years.
Regardless of the modest efficacy shown in the trials, Mosquirix will likely be well received in sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is the single largest cause of death for children under age five, killing nearly one child every minute, or approximately 1,300 children every day. The idea of an anti-malarial immunization is so compelling that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave over $100 million in grants to establish the PATH Malarial Vaccine Initiative. In turn, MVI partnered with Glaxo and is working toward a goal of eradicating malaria worldwide.
Do drug companies make drugs or money?
Glaxo's malaria drug is expected to save many lives in Africa, but the company does not expect to extract large profits from its sale; Glaxo's CEO Andrew Witty indicated that the company will build in a modest 5% profit margin over the cost to manufacture the drug, which he promises to reinvest in research on malaria and other neglected diseases.
Consequently, Mosquirix will likely not have much direct impact on Glaxo's bottom line. The company has invested just $365 million to date in the development of Mosquirix and expects to invest an additional $200 to $250 million until development is completed -- a very small amount compared with Glaxo's overall annual research and development expenditures, which have exceeded $3 billion in each of the past 10 years.
Most investors are capitalists, and we want the companies we invest in to maximize their profits in order to maximize ours. Does this mean we, as investors, should avoid investing in companies that pursue humanitarian endeavors? If in doing so they are forsaking the bottom line, the answer is a resounding yes. However, I believe there can be a place in your portfolio for good corporate citizenship.
Will I be investing in Glaxo?
The acceptance of Mosquirix will likely have little direct impact on Glaxo's financials, but it will probably have a far-reaching impact on children in sub-Saharan Africa, and it could provide considerable goodwill for the pharmaceutical giant. I applaud Glaxo for electing to carve off a small portion of its massive research and development efforts to help a great many children who are affected by malaria; however, that alone is not enough to pique my interest in investing in the company.
While Glaxo's current dividend yield of more than 6% is incredibly tempting, I believe the company lacks satisfactory free cash flow to support its dividend payout going forward, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the U.K.-based pharmaceutical giant announce a decrease in the company's dividend payout.
The tenuousness of the dividend yield, a lack of late-stage blockbuster potential drugs in its pipeline, the revenue challenges facing Advair, and the company's largest drug, which provides 20% of its revenue, combined with several years of stagnant growth will keep me on the sidelines.