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Pharmaceutical research, development, and marketing are not limited by national borders. The larger of these companies are global players, so I thought I would look across the ocean to see what some of the major European pharmaceutical giants are up to.

Sanofi (NYSE:SNY) is continental Europe's largest pharmaceutical company and the third such largest in the world by revenues from prescription and over the counter pharmaceutical sales. It is traded as ADR's on the NYSE, and each ADR is the equivalent of two actual shares. Based on sales forecasts for it and its competitors, Sanofi will become the world's largest pure drug company either this year or next.

Sanofi in 2011 sold 30% of its product in Europe, 27% in the United States, and the remaining 43% across the rest of the globe. 84% of its revenues were from human pharmaceuticals and health, 10% from vaccines, and the balance, animal health.

Sanofi, like many of its peers, is on the wrong side of its "patent cliff." In 2011, the company missed $2.85 billion in sales from medications coming off patent versus 2010. Since, 2008, a handful of drugs that have lost protection have cost about $5.7 billion. This year, blockbusters Plavix and Avapro come off patent as well.

Sanofi has been harder hit by patent issues than any other large pharmaceutical company, aside from Pfizer (NYSE:PFE). But unlike that company, Sanofi has largely been able to offset those losses with growth in under-served, developing countries, along with a long string of massive acquisitions. The most recent of those was its 2011, $20.1 billion purchase of American bio tech firm Genzyme.

Genzyme, through its brief history, had specialized in treatments for relatively rare diseases and conditions. Its leading selling medication, Cerazyme, is a genetic replacement therapy for treatment of Gaucher's disease. It sold a little over $700 million in product in the last full year of Genzyme's independence, though it sold over $1 billion in earlier years. The sales fall was due to lack of product caused by contamination of Genzyme's Massachusetts manufacturing facility.

The sale of Genzyme also allowed its shareholders additional contingent rights, with conditions being the performance of specific drugs after the merger. The most significant of those contingencies is the multiple sclerosis treatment Lemtrada, which recently underwent successful phase three trials in this country. This drug may become a game changer for MS patients, as well as a true blockbuster.

In addition to the Genzyme portfolio, Sanofi has plans for 15 new medications by the end of 2015, the year of the patent expiration of Lantus, which is now Sanofi's best-selling medication. The breadth and immediacy of Sanofi's pipeline is unique, and promises what could have been a catastrophic 2012 to become little more than a hiccup.

Analysts expect overall revenue in 2012 of about $47 billion, about 1% above the 2011 sales figure. Earnings are not scheduled to advance at all, as the market sees just 1% average profit growth over the next five years. I see that as alarmingly pessimistic, and as new medications gain momentum, look for Sanofi to be an excellent performer. Add to that its 4.6% yield and healthy balance sheet, and we have a winner for most conservative investors.

Astrazeneca (NYSE:AZN) is based in Great Britain and its pharmaceutical and over the counter drug business is the seventh largest in the world. Astrazeneca had a terrific full year 2011, with earnings up some 30% from 2010, based largely on growing core product sales.

Astrazeneca is in a vulnerable situation at this time. It has three blockbuster drugs, Crestor, Seroquel and Nexium. All lose patent protection mid-decade, and Crestor will already face substantial pricing pressure this year due to Pfizer owned Lipitor's generic clones' anticipated pricing. There are no potential blockbusters in phase three trials, and Astrazeneca will surely look for an acquisition or two to buttress its pipeline.

Right now, the stock looks cheap, trading for just seven times earnings. But do not be deceived-- it is likely this company and its stock price will be under great pressure over the next several years as patent expirations approach for its blockbusters.

Novo Nordisk (NYSE:NVO) really stands out in this sector. The Dutch company is the world's 17th largest selling maker of pharmaceutical and over the counter drugs, and is anticipated to be the fastest growing such company in the world among the world's 20 largest through 2016.

Novo is largely focused on diabetic care, particular type two diabetes. The relatively fast growth of the company, therefore, coincides with the relatively poor health, particularly in America, that leads to acquired, type two diabetes. One of its newer medications, Victoza, is already a $1 billion plus blockbuster. Degludec had successful phase three trials, and Degludec Plus will surely succeed on that drug's coattails. Earnings are expected to continue growing at a 16% clip the next five years. However, the stock price has already advanced some 50% since late last year, and that price has frankly gotten ahead of any fair valuation. This is a top performing pharmaceutical company, but until it can be purchased for a fair valuation, say under $120 per share, I would stay on the sidelines.

Source: 3 'Big Pharma' Stocks To Consider Now