GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the British pharmaceutical company, reported lackluster fourth quarter earnings for 2012 this morning, with a 3.5% drop in revenue. But the company’s performance would have been much worse if it hadn’t successfully avoided a looming threat that every brand-name pharmaceutical maker faces from time to time: the end of a patent on a blockbuster drug.
GSK’s Advair inhaler (called Seretide in most of Europe and India)—used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—lost its patent at the end of 2010. Ordinarily, a cheaper, generic version of a patented drug comes out shortly after the patent expires, and the generic quickly eats away at the marketshare and revenue of its branded progenitor. But Advair still brings $8 bln in sales to GSK, making it the third highest grossing drug worldwide. The only other off-patent pharmaceutical in the top ten is Lipitor, used for treating high cholesterol, which earned its maker, Pfizer, less than half as much in 2012 as it did in 2011, the year its patent expired (in spite of Pfizer’s unprecedented campaign to keep Lipitor a top-seller by strategically slashing prices).