GSK's new boss writes out her prescription for success as the pharma giant seeks more blockbuster drugs

Tracey Boles
pharma behemoth GSK (Source: Getty)

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has a sprawling vaccines-to-toothpaste portfolio and therein lies the challenge for chief executive Emma Walmsley.

She may have taken the helm of a group strong in consumer healthcare, vaccines and HIV drugs, but the rest of its pharmaceutical operation is struggling to generate real moneyspinners from the lab.

New blockbuster drugs matter to GSK because its top seller, respiratory medicine Advair, has lost its exclusivity and is facing the threat of generic competition. Hopes are high for Shingrix, a Shingles vaccine that is awaiting regulatory approval. But the group's sheer breadth and diversity seem to have resulted in a large number of underperforming projects.

Star fund manager Neil Woodford became so convinced that GSK had lost its way that he sold out of the stock entirely. He and some other investors thought the remedy was to split the FTSE 100 pharmaceutical giant into several more focused companies, enabling management to focus on reviving the pharma operation.

However, Walmsley is largely addressing research productivity within the current structure.

As part of a new £1bn cost-cutting programme revealed yesterday, the FTSE 100 firm will ditch 30 commercially unattractive drug development programmes and consider the sale of its rare diseases business. It also plans to offload more than 130 drug brands.

Most of the R&D budget will be allocated to a handful of key areas: respiratory, HIV and infectious diseases, oncology, and immuno-inflammation.

Shares fell 2.56 per cent to 1,545.36p on Walmsley's eagerly-awaited plans, where the focus is firmly on improving free cash flow. Investors have the dividend to hold onto for now. But an unwelcome side effect of holding the dividend is less room to invest in drug discovery.

There were never going to be quick fixes for GSK. In common with the rest of the industry, the pharma giant is also grappling pricing pressures and technological disruption.

Walmsley reportedly wants her staff to be appraised partly on the courage they show. She may need to draw on the same virtue in coming months: her capital reallocation plans will be tried and tested, much like a potential drug, before they deliver the desired shot to the arm.

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