We publish, you pick: FiercePharma's 10 best-read stories of 2014

Every day, we sort through hundreds of email pitches, press releases, SEC filings, analyst notes, trial data announcements, journal articles, research reports, news digests and alerts. We listen on Twitter and scour the web. We choose which stories to present to you, our readers.

Once a year, we let you do the honors. We check our web traffic for the best-read FiercePharma articles of the year. It's pharma news chosen by pharma readers, a crowdsourced list of the most compelling, important, sensational or controversial stories since New Year's.

In 2014, we had all of the above, starring Pfizer ($PFE), AstraZeneca ($AZN), Novartis ($NVS), Sanofi ($SNY), GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Gilead Sciences ($GILD). Pfizer and Novartis each show up in three headlines. AstraZeneca and Gilead account for two apiece. GSK and Sanofi boast just one each--and we bet you can guess their subjects.

Topics? Job cuts, generic competition, ethics lapses, pricing controversy--and one big battle between a Big Pharma's board and its CEO.

Pfizer and AstraZeneca share top billing in the best-read story of the year, but it's not the news you might expect. It's Pfizer's green light for an over-the-counter version of Nexium, AstraZeneca's gastrointestinal blockbuster, which went off patent in May. AstraZeneca struck an OTC deal with Pfizer in 2012, in a bit of a hedge against the inevitable generics. But even now, the OTC drug is the only rival to good old branded Nexium. Thanks to longstanding manufacturing problems, Ranbaxy Laboratories couldn't launch its copy, and it's first in line with exclusive 180-day rights. In mid-November, the FDA pulled Ranbaxy's tentative OK for the drug, delaying its version even further. So far, the agency hasn't allowed any other would-be copycat to step into the breach--and AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot says he doesn't expect another Nexium rival till next year.

Novartis enjoyed a similar reprieve on generic Diovan, a story that stands in 9th place on our list. After months of delays--and billions in unexpected brand sales for Novartis--Ranbaxy was able to launch its Diovan copy in June. But in the meantime, as the drugmaker prepared for that competition, it rolled out the restructuring plan that's our runner-up for best-read-story of the year. Novartis plotted thousands of job cuts and a business services consolidation in India, part of a push to streamline its operations worldwide.

Novartis also captured third place, with an ethics scandal in Japan. A Tokyo hospital chief admitted that Novartis employees--including sales reps--carried water for researchers in a trial assessing the side effects of several leukemia drugs, including the Swiss drugmaker's old-but-breakthrough-drug Gleevec and its follow-up, Tasigna. It wasn't the only trial-data lapse, either. Novartis pharma chief David Epstein had already apologized for a former employee's involvement in a Diovan trial--the same trial that landed Novartis in hot water with government prosecutors, which charged the company for false advertising.

Surprisingly enough, that single story outranked a bigger ethics scandal: Glaxo's Chinese bribery snafu. Though thousands more readers have followed that particular investigation story-by-story, the single piece of news that managed to crack our top 10 was perhaps the most sensational: GSK's former China chief Mark Reilly, since sentenced and deported for his role in the $493 million bribery scheme, was secretly videotaped in bed with his girlfriend. By itself, not newsworthy. But the video prompted Glaxo to hire private investigator Peter Humphrey, who ended up front-and-center in China's corruption probe. Humphrey was later sentenced to two years in prison for collecting private information on Chinese citizens.

A less salacious controversy takes both fourth and seventh place: Gilead's $84,000 price on its hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi. Notorious with cost-conscious payers, famous as the fastest blockbuster launch in history, and lauded as a game-changing cure for a devastating liver disease, Sovaldi made more headlines in 2014 than any other single drug. Express Scripts ($ESRX) CMO Steven Miller, perhaps the most vocal critic of Gilead's pricing decisions, had predicted that treating U.S. hep C patients would cost $300 billion at that rate--an endeavor that could "break the country." Our fourth-place story focused on the pharmacy benefits manager's annual spending report, which predicted an 1,800% increase in spending on hep C from 2014 to 2016, as more pricey-but-effective drugs hit the market.

And then Congress got into the act. Reps. Henry Waxman and Diana DeGette wrote the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, lamenting Sovaldi's potential burden on Medicare drug spending. Some $6.5 billion in 2015 alone, they said, demanding a hearing about that $84,000 list price. That story was FiercePharma's 7th best-read of the year.

A headline-making price grabbed 10th place, too. Johnson & Johnson's new blood cancer drug Imbruvica won approval late last year, too late to qualify for the 2013 best-read list. J&J tagged it with a $130,000-per-year-price. Just as they are with the Sovaldi saga, readers are hooked on the story of pricey cancer drugs, and the patients and payers who have to foot the bill for them.

Want more controversy? Check out 6th place, where side-effects data provider AdverseEvents stirred up a debate over the safety of a new group of anticoagulants. After sifting and analyzing the FDA's database of adverse event reports, the company concluded that Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) entrant, Eliquis, was the safest of the bunch. Some clinical trial data had already suggested as much. But the makers of Pradaxa (Boehringer Ingelheim) and Xarelto (Johnson & Johnson and Bayer) argued that the FDA's data isn't reliable enough for such a conclusion. With the agency's adverse events data attracting closer attention from AdverseEvents and others, more arguments are sure to come.

Which brings us to a private argument that went very public--and ended in unemployment for Sanofi's now-former CEO, Chris Viehbacher. News that Viehbacher was on the outs with Chairman Serge Weinberg and Sanofi's board broke on Oct. 27. Like a slow-motion train wreck, the battle played out in headlines, with a leaked letter on Monday, terse comments from Viehbacher during the company's third-quarter earnings call Tuesday, and a critical post mortem Wednesday, when Weinberg announced that Viehbacher had been fired. By Halloween, enough people had read Viehbacher's tale of woe to vault that 5-day-old story into 7th place for the entire year. 

We'd be remiss not to point out a couple of the year's biggest stories that didn't make the cut: First, there's Pfizer's failed attempt to buy AstraZeneca in May. Under U.K. takeover rules, Pfizer can make another run at a deal this month. But will it? Perhaps only CEO Ian Read knows for sure. And then there's the Novartis-GlaxoSmithKline-Eli Lilly sale-and-swap, announced in April. In one of the biggest deals of the year--and certainly the most complicated--Novartis bought Glaxo's cancer business and sold Glaxo its vaccines unit, and the two agreed to team up in a consumer health joint venture. As for Lilly, it picked up the Novartis animal health business as part of the bargain.

Here's this year's list, in descending order:

1. Pfizer gets FDA green light for Nexium OTC launch as AZ braces for competition
2. Novartis slashing thousands more jobs in global reorganization, shifting many to India
3. Tokyo hospital exec says Novartis employees deeply involved in leukemia-drug trial
4. Express Scripts adds fuel to the fire in fight over Gilead Sciences' Sovaldi
5. Sex, bribes and videotape: Clandestine video of GSK exec adds to China scandal
6. Pradaxa, Xarelto makers dispute purported Eliquis safety edge
7. Why does Sovaldi cost $84,000? Gilead Sciences being pressed hard for an answer
8. Novartis expects a generic of Diovan to finally arrive in April
9. Don't fire me, Sanofi CEO tells board, amid tussle over strategy
10. J&J, Pharmacyclics slap $130,000 price on Imbruvica for rare lymphoma

Thoughts on the year's news? Spot any trends we haven't? Have predictions to share? Let us know. We're preparing for our next birds-eye view of the industry--our annual outline of the trends we expect to be most important in the coming year. Your input is welcome. --Tracy Staton (email | Twitter)

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