Merck execs tout early yield from sleep drug Belsomra's launch

Last month, Merck & Co. ($MRK) finally rolled out its long-awaited sleep drug, Belsomra (suvorexant). After years of delays and disappointments at the FDA, it's safe to say that no one expects the drug to churn out big sales this year.

But that's not to say Merck doesn't have its ambitions, albeit ones that are tempered by time. Belsomra is one of 6 products the company is rolling out as we speak, a so-called Wave 1 of growth-inducing meds. And Merck execs have been talking up the launch at recent investor conferences. 

Merck CFO Rob Davis

According to a Wednesday presentation at Barclays Global Healthcare Conference, Belsomra has surpassed 1,000 weekly prescriptions since its Feb. 5 launch in the U.S. The product is currently rolling out in Japan, too, which puts Belsomra's potential market at some 2 billion doses per year, combined, CFO Rob Davis said. Obviously, Belsomra has a long way to go.

Perhaps most promising for Belsomra's long-term prospects, some 30% of the new Belsomra patients are "continuous treaters"--meaning they use insomnia meds routinely--who are looking for new alternatives, the company's presentation states.

Belsomra is indeed a new type of sleep drug, designed to block orexin, one of the neurotransmitters that promotes wakefulness. That fact made the FDA nervous, however, particularly in light of the much-publicized sleep-driving episodes reported in patients using other insomnia meds like Ambien. Those reports put the agency on watch for side effects with new insomnia meds. With Belsomra, the agency worried about drowsy drivers the morning after--hence the approval for a lower dose only.

Once pegged as a $900 million drug, Belsomra might have had more of an opportunity to get there had it won the FDA's blessing its first time around, back in 2013. When it did score an approval last August, with the lower maximum dose, analysts pegged sales at $300 million to $500 million. That's obviously years down the road. Now, Global Data sees Belsomra leading the insomnia market by 2023 with $458 million in sales, as most of the leading branded remedies get generic competition in the meantime.

Belsomra's brand website includes some typical marketing features, such as a quiz about current sleep habits and advice from a sleep expert (turn off your electronic devices way ahead of bedtime, for instance). There's also a free trial offer--for 10 days--and a coupon offering copays as little as $30 per month. Plus, Merck has an app dubbed "Sleep Guru," with prompts about bedtime routines, guided imagery exercises and virtual coaching.

- see the presentation from Merck
- check out the Sleep Guru app

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