Wishing, hoping, planning as AbbVie's hep C do-or-die moment nears

As 2014 winds down, and Gilead Sciences ($GILD) keeps winding up hep C sales by the billion, AbbVie ($ABBV) waits, vibrating with anticipation. Its three-drug cocktail is up for FDA approval any day now, and the Illinois-based company is ready to challenge Gilead for market share.

So much hope placed on one big drug approval. Obviously, AbbVie has high hopes, because it needs to shore up its sales to prepare for Humira copycats. But payers are hoping, too. They want to use AbbVie's cocktail to fight high prices on competing meds, primarily Gilead's Sovaldi and Harvoni. And patients shut out of new hep C therapies so far could gain access if prices come down.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, the hepatitis C fighters would be AbbVie's first significant new product in years. When Abbott Laboratories ($ABT) spun AbbVie off at the beginning of last year, the big question was whether AbbVie could replace its cash cow with new meds, and the hep C cocktail was one of the company's biggest answers.

And the therapy comes in the nick of time, as the company's key revenue engine nears the end of its patent life; Zydus Cadila launched the first biosimilar version of Humira in India last week. Plus, AbbVie expects some generic competition for its second-best seller, AndroGel--far behind the $11 billion Humira with $1 billion in 2013 sales--beginning early next year. Then there's the recent collapse of its $55 billion Shire ($SHPG) buyout. Now, AbbVie's hep C launch looks more important than ever.

It's not a sure thing, though. As a combination of individual drugs, AbbVie's hep C alternative requires four to six pills per day, the WSJ points out. Gilead's Harvoni is a two-in-one, once-daily tablet.

AbbVie says it's not worried about the multiple pills, because its alternative is so effective, with cure rates comparable to Harvoni's. Analysts figure the company can grab a significant share of the market regardless, though they're not expecting AbbVie's meds to race past Gilead's. And as some market-watchers have pointed out, millions of hepatitis C patients remain to be treated in the U.S. Even a minority share of that market would amount to big bucks.

AbbVie's biggest opportunity might lie in working with payers. Pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts ($ESRX) says it would welcome the chance to make exclusive deals with AbbVie, provided the price is right. Cutting Gilead's access to patients would obviously be a competitive advantage.

But AbbVie will need to work fast. Other rivals are coming up, from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Merck ($MRK). And don't count out Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), whose protease inhibitor Olysio has been delivering blockbuster-level sales. J&J doesn't want to lose out in hep C, so it will be pushing Olysio in combination with other meds, particularly in the patient subtypes where it has performed best.

- read the WSJ piece

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