Another one bites the dust: Merck cans hep C fighter Victrelis as new meds take flight

Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) isn't the only company with a hepatitis C drug operating in the shadow of new giants from Gilead Sciences ($GILD) and AbbVie ($ABBV). Merck & Co.'s Victrelis, a breakthrough product when it made its debut in 2011, is another.

But not for long. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Merck will stop selling Victrelis in the U.S. by the end of this year. The company cites "advances in treatment practices"--namely, the new all-oral drug cocktails offered by Gilead and AbbVie--and the shrinking demand they've caused.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX) said much the same thing in August, when it announced it would stop selling Victrelis' head-to-head rival, Incivek. That drug went off the U.S. market in October, thanks to diminishing market share--and "available alternative treatments."

It was a big comedown for Incivek, which had been hailed as the fastest drug launch ever, with a quick sprint to blockbuster-level sales. Less so for Victrelis, which peaked at $504 million. Still, it's a turnabout; both meds were big advances in hep C treatment at the time, because they vastly improved the effectiveness of older interferon-based cocktails, and shortened the length of treatment. When the next generation of all-oral treatments neared the market, however, doctors started putting off treating patients to wait for the newer meds.

Still, Merck isn't out of hep C altogether. The company has its own next-gen antiviral in the works, with approval possible this year as an add-on to Sovaldi therapy. It will have to compete with Gilead's Harvoni--which unseated Incivek in the drug-launch speed contest, plus AbbVie's recently approved Viekira Pak. Though Merck's drug recently failed a study testing four weeks of treatment--aiming for a competitive edge with an ultrashort treatment span--it's still a contender with longer treatment times. And the company bought another hep C med along with Idenix last year, putting it in line for its own two-drug combo, no Sovaldi necessary.

- see the WSJ piece

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