Just as hep C star Sovaldi makes its debut, Gilead commercial chief says he'll retire

Gilead Sciences ($GILD) just rolled out its much-anticipated hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) last month. Now, the company's commercial chief is saying sayonara. EVP Kevin Young will retire Feb. 4, leaving his team to soldier on alone with the Sovaldi launch.

Gilead's Kevin Young

It's obviously a crucial time for Gilead. Expectations are sky-high, with some analysts looking for $3 billion in sales from Sovaldi this year. That's unheard-of for a brand-new drug. But it's not hype: Sovaldi will fundamentally change the way hepatitis C is treated.

So, the pressure is on for Gilead's commercial team to deliver not just a respectable first-year sales figure but a record-setting, multibillion-dollar number. Has Young, in his 9 years on the job, put together a group strong enough to do that, without him in front to rally the troops? And in a disease field outside Gilead's core HIV-fighting franchise?

CEO John Martin hinted at a yes. "Over the past nine years, he has greatly expanded and strengthened our commercial organization, preparing the company to introduce products in new therapeutic areas," Martin said in a statement. The company has racked up a series of highly successful launches during that time period, too, including last year's Stribild rollout. That drug made FiercePharma's list of Top 15 Drug Launch Superstars.

Sovaldi knocks interferon out of the usual drug cocktail for most patients. The drug is effective and, for some patients, cuts treatment time to 12 weeks from 24. That's why doctors have held off treating thousands of patients till Sovaldi got the green light. It's considered that much better than last-generation options.

So, there's plenty of pent-up demand for Gilead to fill immediately. Also, the population of patients coinfected with both HIV and hep C is sizable, so Gilead already has relationships with doctors who'll be looking to treat them. That gives Gilead a little breathing room to sign a new sales-and-marketing chief. In the meantime, says Geoff Meacham of J.P. Morgan, the team launching Sovaldi has "largely been intact" for more than two years, so that should help. Plus, some of them have worked with Young for many years.

"[W]e would be not surprised if Gilead promoted someone from the team internally to fill the role, rather than look externally, given the working knowledge base required for both the HIV and hep C businesses and the fact that Kevin has had a 'large team,' with some people working together with him for over a decade," Meacham said (as quoted by TheStreet).

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Special Reports: Top 15 Drug Launch Superstars - Stribild - Gilead Sciences