Merck's new hep C contender Zepatier faces a long runway, but 2017 could bring takeoff

If Merck ($MRK) was aiming to score points with payers when it undercut its hep C rivals on price with new combo therapy Zepatier, consider the job done. But whether those points can translate into a market-share boost remains to be seen.

Express Scripts CMO Steve Miller

Steve Miller, chief medical officer at PBM leader Express Scripts ($ESRX), praised the company's $54,600 list price for the newcomer in an interview with Bloomberg Friday, stressing that he "can't say enough good things" about the pharma giant's approach. Zepatier's sticker comes in 42% lower than that of Gilead Sciences' ($GILD) $94,500 competitor Harvoni, which sends "a very loud message to the marketplace," he said.

Miller has been one of the most outspoken critics of Gilead since late 2013, when it rolled out Harvoni component med Sovaldi at $84,000 per 12-week treatment course. And when AbbVie ($ABBV) came around with its own contender, Viekira Pak, it didn't take long for Express Scripts to ink an exclusive deal with the Illinois drugmaker to freeze out its higher-priced nemesis.

So Miller's glee at Merck's decision may come as no surprise. But it may also not mean much for the New Jersey pharma giant--at least not right away.

That's because insurers and PBMs already have contracts in place for Harvoni and Viekira this year, Miller told Bloomberg. "What you'll see is the Merck team doing a lot of negotiating this year, and you'll see the drug gain traction next year."

Still, Merck has blockbuster ambitions for Zepatier, and analysts see those coming to pass, with 2020 estimates coming in at $2 billion-plus. Merck knows "this market, and we know the players, and we know the managed care organizations very, very well," Adam Schechter, company president of global human health, said on Merck's Q3 conference call. "We intend to be serious about coming into this market strong, and we think there's a real opportunity for us."

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