By Natalie Huet and Noëlle Mennella
PARIS (Reuters) - Sanofi (SAN.PA) is on the lookout for acquisitions to boost key business units, such as consumer and animal health products, and expects strong growth in the "strategic continent" of Africa, its chief executive told Reuters on Wednesday.
"We can never comment on targets. Clearly, we have growth platforms such as animal health and consumer health care - if we can strengthen those while creating value for our shareholders we will do that," he said.
Merck is considering divesting its healthcare business, best known for Coppertone sunscreen, Dr. Scholl's foot care and Claritin allergy medicine. Sanofi is now among several companies cited by bankers as potential bidders including the likes of Reckitt Benckiser (RB.V) and Bayer (BAYN.DE).
Pricing pressure from cash-strapped governments and tough competition from generics has prompted many drugmakers to consider divesting certain non-core business units.
Sanofi, meanwhile, is striving to shake off the impact of patent losses on key drugs and betting on "growth platforms" - including rare diseases, over-the-counter treatments and animal health - and its big cash pile has prompted speculation by bankers it could complement these through acquisitions.
Viehbacher noted that the company's net debt, at around 6 billion euros, was well below its 10 billion target.
Sanofi's use of cash has faced market scrutiny since the prospect of a massive buyback of its shares held by L'Oreal (OREP.PA) has faded. Some analysts now expect Sanofi will proceed with a share buyback anyway, to the tune of 2 billion euros this year, to boost earnings per share and reward shareholders after a disappointing 2013.
"If we don't find acquisitions and the dividend doesn't absorb the cash, we've always said we'll proceed with opportunistic share buybacks," Viehbacher said. Sanofi already bought back more than 1.6 billion euros of shares in 2013.
Speaking at Institut Pasteur on the sidelines of a conference on neglected tropical diseases, Viehbacher said Africa was a "strategic continent" for Sanofi, which is the international pharmaceutical company with the highest sales there, at over 1 billion euros last year.
This revenue should grow in the double digits in 2014 and post "strong growth" in the next years, he said.
GSK said earlier this week it planned to invest up to $200 million in African factories and research labs in the next five years.
"It's good that other companies discover Africa," Viehbacher quipped. "Sanofi is well ahead of all its rivals there," he added, noting the company had in recent years opened plants in Algeria, Morocco and South Africa to supply the region with affordable drugs against malaria and HIV but was also active in mental health such as epilepsy and depression.
The comments show how Big Pharma now sees Africa not only as an area of philanthropic work but as a promising commercial market, as chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart and lung disorders become more common among the continent's rapidly growing urban middle classes.
ROOM FOR FURTHER LANTUS PRICE RISES
In diabetes, Sanofi's top-selling drug still has headroom for price increases in the United States, its biggest market, Viehbacher said, noting the cost of this insulin - $6 a day - was cheaper than rivals such as Novo Nordisk (NOVO-B.CO) whose treatments go up to $18, and Lantus should keep a competitive edge.
Lantus prices in the United States rose nearly 30 percent last year, Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a recent note. The drug accounts for 17 percent of Sanofi's total sales and roughly 30 percent of its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT).
"The goal is to have a balanced growth between price and volumes," Viehbacher said.
Sanofi is fighting to protect this cash cow from copycat drugs in the courts, suing rival U.S. company Eli Lilly (LLY) for alleged patent infringements.
The move triggered an automatic 30-month stay of approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, keeping Lilly's biosimilar drug off the U.S. market until mid-2016, or until the matter is solved in court. Technically, the threat could be averted even beyond 2016, depending on the timing of a court ruling, Viehbacher noted.
(Editing by David Evans)