Can Merck/Roche hep C deal put Victrelis combo on top?

What's better than Big Pharma marketing power? Big Pharma marketing power times two. Merck has tapped Roche to help sell its new hepatitis C drug Victrelis, aiming to combat the perceived edge of soon-to-be-approved competitor Incivek from Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson.

What's interesting about this co-promotion deal is that Merck and Roche make rival hepatitis C drugs, Peg-Intron and Pegasys. They're interferon injections are part of the standard two-drug therapy for the disease. Victrelis is an add-on, creating a three-drug cocktail that's proven to be more effective at curing hep C than the standard two-drug combo and work more quickly than the standard therapy, which has its share of unpleasant side effects.

Merck will market Victrelis as an addition to the Peg-Intron cocktail, while Roche will promote its combination with Pegasys. And Pegasys has muscle; it currently owns about three-quarters of the interferon market in hepatitis C, Bloomberg says. Plus, Merck's trials for Victrelis tested the drug in combination with Peg-Intron, so having Roche put its stamp on Victrelis as a Pegasys add-on could help offset the lack of data there. That's what Sanford Bernstein's Tim Anderson figures: "Now, with Roche on board, this potential shortcoming gets more than removed, in our opinion."

Together, the two companies will be working to shoulder Incivek aside. "In essence, the Merck-Roche agreement effectively tries to shut telaprevir (Incivek) out of the market to some degree," Anderson said (as quoted by Medical Marketing & Media). The marketing deal covers the U.S. right now, but the companies said it could be expanded to other markets as well.

- here's the Merck release
- get the coverage from MM&M
- see the Bloomberg piece
- get more from The Street
- read the Reuters news