Merck: Don't declare a hep C victor yet

Merck ($MRK) released its first sales numbers for hepatitis C newbie Victrelis, confirming that rival Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX) is in the lead. Merck's drug brought in $21 million for the period, with a week's head start, while Vertex's Incivek accounted for $75 million in sales. That's a three-to-one ratio, a bit better for Incivek than the 70/30 split analysts had predicted up front.

Now, analysts are expecting Incivek to hit $637 million this year, compared with $128 million for Victrelis, Bloomberg found. "Vertex delivered a blow to pessimists, skeptics and cynics," Sanford C. Berstine's Geoffrey Porges said in a note to investors (as quoted by the news service).

The Merck drug has come up against the obstacles most had expected--chiefly dosing issues. "Merck acknowledged that Victrelis's complicated dosing has been an issue for physicians," Wells Fargo's Brian Abrahams told clients. "The better profile and simpler dosing of Incivek provide important practical advantages for Vertex."

But Merck has Roche to help out in Europe, and it's touting plans for other international markets, including Brazil. Sounding a bit defensive on its conference call with analysts, the company pointed out its business with specialty pharmacies wasn't fully incorporated into prescription numbers from IMS Health, which showed Incivek's big lead. As time goes on, the implication was, Victrelis will get more traction.

"By any measurement, Vertex is winning the market share battle meaningfully, but everyone needs to agree it's still early days," R.W. Baird analyst Thomas Russo said (as quoted by The Street). Morningstar's Damien Conover agreed that the contrast isn't completely clear. "People are trying to gauge the split of the market...and we don't know what's happening." Yet.

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