Eisai's revved-up Belviq marketing starting to pay off, analysts say

When it comes to addressing the market, pharma has three P's, according to Eisai's Michael O'Brien: physician, payer and patient. And as VP of specialty marketing, O'Brien is looking to hit each of them in promoting the recently launched weight-loss drug Belviq.

Michael O'Brien--Courtesy of Eisai

On the physician side, Eisai recently amped up its sales force, adding 100 reps in December and another 114 at the beginning of this year; the staff-up expands Eisai's reach from just under 25,000 docs to just under 65,000, O'Brien told FiercePharmaMarketing. And as Cowen & Co. analyst Simos Simeonidis wrote in a recent note to investors, the effects of that push should show up soon. "We expect this additional investment in sales resources to translate into a significant bump in Belviq scripts, starting over the next few weeks," he wrote.

Eisai and its partner, Arena Pharmaceuticals ($ARNA), are also looking at an improved payer landscape. PBM giant CVS Caremark ($CVS) inked an agreement earlier this month with Eisai that should provide more than half of insured Americans with access to Belviq. "That was welcome news. CVS is an important customer within the pharma space," O'Brien said.

He also noted the expansion of Eisai's Belviq DTC campaign, which consists of print ads in national publications like Sports Illustrated and Oprah Magazine. After kicking off last fall in 8 publications, in January Eisai bumped that up to 12 and expanded the number of impressions. "This market is very noisy. We feel we have to do a strong effort to educate the patient that there's actually an FDA-approved product out there for weight management," O'Brien said.

Eisai had its work cut out for it after the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) held up the launch of Belviq for nearly a year on safety concerns, allowing Vivus' ($VVUS) rival drug to beat it to market. And while the uptake has been slow, thanks to the step-up in marketing, analysts say the Japanese company's efforts have recently started to pay off.

The prescription numbers speak for themselves, as Simeonidis points out. New Belviq prescriptions are up twice as high as those of Vivus' Qsymia, and they've grown for 6 straight weeks to reach an all-time high. "Belviq is clearly having much stronger momentum than Qsymia. … This, in our view, is further evidence that Arena/Eisai's commercial strategy of increased resourcing is working, while Vivus' is not," he wrote.

But all of that doesn't mean it will be smooth sailing from here on out; on the contrary, both Belviq and Qsymia may soon face additional safety scrutiny. As foxnews.com reports, an editorial published in the Feb. 10 issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine pointed to potential side effects including memory and attention problems. Studies also haven't yet ruled out the possibility that the pair of new weight-loss drugs, like their fen-phen predecessors no longer on the market, may increase the risk of heart problems, the editorial said.

- get more from the AP on the CVS agreement
- read the foxnews.com piece