What's beyond hepatitis C in the drug launch hit parade? Ibrance and Tecfidera, for two

The top drug launches of the past 20 years include cancer meds from Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, eye drugs from Regeneron and Roche, and a host of hepatitis C antivirals. (Image: NASA)

Take a look at the last two decades’ worth of drug launches and one thing is clear: Hepatitis C has fueled some NASA-worthy blastoffs—and some declines that ended with a parachute back to earth.

That’s not necessarily news to pharma watchers. But hep C isn’t the only type of drug that’s quickly conquered. Multiple sclerosis, cancer and eye disease have, too—several with launches in the last few years. And then there are the Cox-2 inhibitors—Pfizer’s Celebrex, still chugging away today, and Merck & Co.’s late lamented Vioxx, pulled off the market after it was overwhelmed by safety concerns. They’re still among the top 10, according to EP Vantage, citing EvaluatePharma data.

Five hep C meds—three of them from Gilead Sciences—are among the 10 fastest drug launches of the last 20 years Gilead’s three occupy first, second and third place, in fact, with a combined $21.7 billion in revenue over their first four full quarters on the market.

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Harvoni, the combo med, racked up $10 billion, with single-agent Sovaldi, the first in a new generation of disease-fighters, accounting for $8.5 billion. And then there’s Epclusa, approved in 2016 and launched into a competitive market, ginned up more than $3 billion.

As the competition grew ever fiercer, Sovaldi and Harvoni have since deflated like aging helium balloons, and Gilead’s 2018 sales expectations are $3.5 to $4 billion for the entire franchise, far below analyst expectations for the year.

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They weren’t the first hep C drugs to suffer iagnominious declines, though. The boom-bust cycle in hep C led Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges to call the entire category a “flash in the pan once again” back in September 2016, predicting massive declines for Gilead’s franchise.

Johnson & Johnson’s Olysio—approved in 2013, the same year as Sovaldi’s first-in-class nod—came in fourth on EP’s list, with $1.94 billion in sales for its first four quarters, and even after Harvoni and Sovaldi appeared, J&J made a game effort to keep sales coming. But now, Olysio’s sales continue to fall, and they’re insignificant enough for J&J to leave the numbers out of its product breakdown completely.

And then there’s Incivek, sixth on the list with $1.56 billion in quick revenue after its 2011 approval. In fact, it was the fastest launch ever at that time, unseating Celebrex for that title. Now, Incivek is no more. Vertex Pharmaceuticals pulled it from the market after it became clear that the new generation of meds would dominate.

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Outside hep C, Biogen’s Tecfidera takes the prize with $1.72 billion in sales in the first four quarters after its 2013 launch. It’s in fifth place overall. Celebrex comes in sixth—right after Incivek—with $1.55 billion—and it was launched in 1999, when a dollar was worth more. Gilead scores another spot, eighth place, with its fast launching Genvoya, an HIV-fighter.

In the ninth spot is the only cancer drug in the top 10: Pfizer’s Ibrance, after its 2015 launch brought in $1.1 billion in sales. The drug had grown to $3-plus billion by last year, and in 2018, analysts are looking for $5 billion by 2021.

Finally, rounding out the list, is Vioxx, Celebrex’s fellow Cox-2 pain med, which pulled in just over a billion after it launched the same year, good for 10th place on EP’s list.

If you pull out the antivirals, as EP did for a separate ranking, Pfizer’s mega-statin Lipitor wins fifth, while three anti-VEGF drugs—Regeneron’s Eylea,  and Roche’s Lucentis and Avastin—take seventh, ninth and 10th, respectively. Opdivo, the Bristol-Myers Squibb immuno-oncology med, comes in eighth, with $823 million after its 2014 launch.