Esperion ditches traditional drug launch playbook to navigate first drug debut during pandemic

doctor working at computer
Esperion's first drug approvals for new cholesterol meds came right before the pandemic, causing the company to quickly redraw its launch plans. (Utah778/GettyImages)

In early March, Esperion Therapeutics prepared to gather hundreds of newly hired salespeople in Phoenix to prep for its first drug launch.

The company was flying high: Cholesterol-buster Nexletol notched its FDA green light in February with a combination drug, Nexlizet, approved right after. Esperion’s years of strategizing and launch planning was about to become reality with Nexletol's March 30 debut.

At least that was the plan—before the COVID-19 pandemic landed hard in the U.S. the same month.

Travel restrictions and statewide shutdowns forced Esperion to cancel the sales meeting and call off in-person training for key opinion leaders, too. On March 12, the company officially nixed those meetings and began a full pivot to digital.

The mission was to power beyond those setbacks and stay on track for launch. Sales reps met one another and their managers virtually, KOLs attended training online and everyone worked with physician partners to learn about what was happening in their practices.

For Esperion, it wasn’t just a physical shift of meetings and visits, but a kind of mental and emotional whiplash as years of planning cratered.

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Esperion Executive Director of Marketing Renee Marotta was acutely aware—she’s been working on the launch since she joined the company in 2018.

“Empathy was the cornerstone of Esperion when all of this hit. Not only for our organization and our sales reps on the front line, but also for our HCPs. We had an ad board meeting within a week of the term 'pandemic' being announced, and the HCPs who we speak to on a regular basis in New York were literally shaken to the core,” she said.

Physician visits were scarce in the early days—in April, sales reps met only 5% of their pre-COVID goals for engaging docs, Esperion reported in a recent investor call. However, by the end of July, reps had reached 70% of their pre-COVID targets via virtual and in-person HCP meetings.

The digital switch and lessons learned were quickly applied to Nexlizet, a combination of Nexletol and ezetimibe, which launched in June.

RELATED: ACC: Esperion's Nexletol busts cholesterol levels regardless of statin, ezitimibe therapy

Not surprisingly, Nexletol sales are lower than pre-pandemic expectations, but Esperion noted several anecdotal measures of success during the earnings call.

More than 4,000 HCPs participated in peer-to-peer education sessions led by KOLs in May, June and July. HCPs are reporting early positive lab results for patients on Esperion meds, and a recent informal survey of 100 providers found 90% were familiar with both Nexletol and Nexlizet.

Esperion reported that through the end of July, more than 2,000 different HCPs prescribed the drug. It surpassed 1,000 weekly retail prescriptions in July.

“It’s pretty amazing how fast we had to shift and pivot to this new environment,” Marotta said, adding that the traditional launch framework is now gone. “We had to throw out the playbook and really embed into people’s heads that playbook is no longer meaningful. It no longer works and we have to think outside the box."

"There’s truly no bigger place for a marketer right now," she added. "This is the new world."