With Incivek approval, hep C drug battle begins

Turns out Merck won't have much of a lead in the market for new hepatitis C treatments. Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson got the FDA nod for their Incivek drug, a direct competitor to Merck's newly approved Victrelis. Both drugs are heralded as major advances in the treatment of hep C, and the fight for market share is expected to be fierce.

In the 10 days since Merck's Victrelis won the FDA's blessing, the company has teamed up with Roche to co-promote the drug, a move that some analysts expect will help offset cure-rate data in favor of the Vertex drug. Merck was set to start shipping the drug last week, at a wholesale price of $1,100 per treatment course.

Less than 50 percent of patients respond to the current standard treatment for hepatitis C, the FDA said in its approval announcement, but adding Incivek boosted that response to 79 percent in one study. Across all studies and patient groups, the response to Incivek was between 20 percent and 45 percent higher than the current standard, the agency added. Meanwhile, the cure rate for Victrelis was shown to be 66 percent.

On the strength of those numbers, analysts have been predicting that as much as 75 percent of the market will go to Incivek. Some expect Incivek to hit $5 billion a year, Reuters reports.

Anticipating the Incivek approval, Vertex has been setting up launch support, planning to release the drug as soon as possible. The company now says that Incivek will be available this week. Brean Murray, Carret & Co. analyst Brian Skorney says he expects the two drugs to split the market evenly at first, with Incivek gradually pulling ahead over the next year or so. So, hold onto your hats--and keep an eye on the sales stats. 

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