Vivus CEO bows out for health reasons; former J&J exec to step in

Tony Zook--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

Just as the dust was settling at Vivus ($VVUS), its new CEO, Tony Zook, has resigned for health reasons. Zook's sudden exit, effective today, follows his almost-as-sudden entrance as CEO in July after a bitter proxy war put rebel investors in charge.

It's a blow for Zook, of course, who is leaving to deal with "recurring issues" associated with a previously diagnosed condition. It's also a blow for Vivus, which was counting on Zook to jump-start sales of its weight-loss drug Qsymia.

Seth H. Z. Fischer, a former Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) executive, will take Zook's place as CEO and his seat on the Vivus board. Zook will help Fischer with the transition through mid-September, the company said. "This has been a difficult decision," Zook said in a statement. "Unfortunately, I cannot devote the necessary time and focus to the company, but instead must concentrate on personal health issues."

As Zook took over in late July, hope was in the air. His experience with big drug launches lent weight to his promise to get Qsymia on the right track, with a Big Pharma marketing partner and a new push with doctors. Recently released prescription data added to the positive mood, as prescriptions rose 7%, surpassing 10,000 for the week of Aug. 23.

Whether Fischer can keep the optimism going remains to be seen. Though he most recently worked on the device side at J&J, he spent years at the company's Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals division. As president there, he oversaw a variety of drug launches, including the blockbuster antibiotic Levaquin and epilepsy drug Topamax.

He'll have plenty of challenges at Vivus, as Chairman Michael Astrue said in the company's statement. Astrue's list: Boosting Qsymia use, wrapping up negotiations for a marketing partner, contending with European regulators skeptical of the drug, and cutting costs. The company also needs a plan--and partner--to launch its FDA-approved erectile dysfunction drug Stendra in the U.S.

- see the release from Vivus

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