Zeneca suffers 8% fall in share price

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ASTRAZENECA, the Anglo- Swedish drugs company, suffered an 8 per cent fall in its share price yesterday, wiping pounds 4bn from its market value, as a long-awaited research and development symposium failed to provide news to offset a general sell-off of pharmaceutical stocks.

Attention focused on fresh data on esomeprazole, a successor to Losec, the antiulcerant that is its lead product facing patent expiry. The group said the new drug, to be marketed under the brand name of Nexium, had been filed with the US Food and Drug Administration. However, analysts were left wanting more.

"The data didn't support the idea that Nexium would be a substantially better product than Losec, as the market had been led to believe," said one analyst.

"Nexium has got to blow people's socks off, but the case for it is still inconclusive," said Paul Diggle, analyst at SG Securities.

AstraZeneca said Nexium was as effective in four weeks as Losec in eight. Losec, the world's most prescribed antiulcerant, comes off patent in the United States in 2001.

AstraZeneca has had mixed success in seeking patent extensions in countries where Losec's patent has already expired.

However, bullish statements on other products helped limit the damage to the shares inflicted on by downgrades to the sector by brokers concerned that US healthcare budgets would be slashed in 2000.

The company said it intended to be the world leader in all areas of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, cancer and pain control treatments by 2010.

ZD4522, a so-called "superstatin" for lowering cholesterol levels, showed signs in trials of being more efficacious than the present class leader. The group said it had commenced final-stage trials on an oral thrombosis treatment, the first real advance in the field in 50 years.

The group said it aimed to double the value of its drugs portfolio within five years. Dr Claes Wilhelmsson, AstraZeneca's R&D director, said: "These are challenging targets. This company demands nothing less. I am confident we can exceed expectations in future."

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