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Merck, Vertex & Hepatitis C: And The Wags Say…

By Ed Silverman // August 4th, 2010 // 3:16 pm
Earlier today, Merck touted clinical trial results for its becoprevir hepatitis C treatment, but a quick read of the data is not good news for the big drugmaker. Why? The outcome was good, but everything is relative - the results don’t compare all that favorably to telaprevir, which is being developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
How so? Combined with the standard of care, the Merck drug yielded a cure rate of 63 percent to 66 percent in treatment-naive patients, or those never before treated. By comparison, patients receiving only standard care had a 38 percent cure rate. But…and this is a big but… A Vertex study of telaprevir found of treatment-naive patients yielded a 75 percent cure rate when combined with standard are. And telaprevir worked faster - 24 weeks versus 28 weeks for Merck’s drug. There was also a higher rate of anemia among Merck patients.
So what is Wall Street saying? Analysts are waiting for more data about telaprever next month and about the Merck drug at the big liver meeting this fall, since Merck released only partial data. Meanwhile, Merck may have one key advantage, though - a strong familiarity with the hepatitis C market thanks to its acquistion last year of Schering-Plough. “This should not be underestimated,” Sanford Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson writes in an investor note, who expects the Vertex drug to ring up $4.3 billion in sales in 2015.
Elsewhere, Deutsche Bank analyst Barbara Ryan writes: “At first blush, the limited information reinforces the widely held view that telaprevir is a more potent therapy that may allow for shorter courses of therapy and have better activity in non-responders, and it is expected to capture the majority of the patient pool initiating treatment or re-treatment in the next few years. Nonetheless, until the clinical profiles are clarified, the relative positioning and opportunity for these products will not be clear. In our view, it is certainly possible that as the nuances and details of the trial results become known, perceived differences in overall effectiveness for these agents may diminish.”
“The top-line data Merck released today for its hepatitis C protease inhibitor boceprevir appears to confirm suspicions that investors previously had,” writes Credit Suisse analyst Catherine Arnold in her note. “While the drug is likely approvable, its efficacy may be less than what is achieved with telaprevir.” Assuming both drugs win FDA approval in late 2011 or 2012, she forecasts the Merck drug will generate $794 million in revenue by 2015.
For now, “Merck’s boceprevir (is) not all that impressive in naives,” writes RW Baird analyst Tom Russo in an investor note. “Boceprevir shows efficacy in previous failures, but we think Vertex can deliver fairly similar results in (a) more difficult-to-treat population.”
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