Eisai to recruit 200 new sales reps for amped-up Belviq push

Analysts promised a battle of obesity drugs between Arena's Belviq and Vivus' Qsymia. But in marketing partner Eisai, Arena ($ARNA) has a weapon Vivus lacks--and that weapon is about to get bigger. The Japanese company plans to add more than 200 sales reps to its army by December, doubling its size since the drug hit the market this June.

According to Eisai, the ramp-up will help the Japanese company target about 65,000 U.S. physicians, including primary care providers, endocrinologists, and cardiovascular and gastrointestinal specialists. The sales force expansion follows increased coverage by health plans and PBMs, which means patients might actually be willing to fill their doctors' prescriptions. "This initiative is in alignment with our strategic vision and long-term goals for Belviq of focusing on physician education, providing patient support and increasing awareness, and addressing the need for expanded reimbursement coverage among payors," Michael O'Brien, VP of Eisai's specialty marketing, said in a statement.

The news comes at a tough time for competitor Vivus ($VVUS), which chose to market its weight-loss therapy Qsymia without the help of a Big Pharma partner. That move stifled sales potential, in addition to drawing ire from an activist shareholder that ultimately overturned the company's board. And though the new-look exec team has promised to find a marketing partner pronto, sales are languishing in the interim. Qsymia prescriptions in the third quarter totaled 108,000, trending below IMS data that predicted 121,000; Leerink Swann analyst Marko Kozul, for one, revised his revenue estimate for the quarter to just $7.4 million, down from $17.3 million.

But while Eisai's sales force expansion may shake things up in the commercial arena, it won't change Belviq's clinical profile, as Cowen & Co. analyst Simos Simeonidis pointed out in an investor note. He still thinks Belviq will have "a very difficult time garnering significant market share, mainly due to its modest efficacy." Safety is also an issue: Belviq's label features warnings about serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening buildup of the chemical, and valvular heart disease; signals of heart valve disorder and cancer-causing agents also appeared in clinical trials, he wrote. 

That's where beloranib, a promising therapy from private company Zafgen, comes in. The drug works differently than the other horses in the obesity race, targeting the body to produce less fat rather than suppressing appetite. So far, the injectable treatment has not demonstrated any serious safety concerns in trials. While the drug is still years away from the market, if that trend continues, it could wind up the first obesity therapy to top the blockbuster mark.

But then again, it remains to be seen whether weight-loss drugs will catch on at all. They've been a hard sell in the U.S. historically, despite the fact that more than one-third of Americans are now clinically obese. Diabetes drugs may soon move into the market and could prove to be some formidable foes. Novo Nordisk's ($NVO) Victoza, for one, has shown promise as a weight-loss therapy in clinical trials; the company plans to ask regulators by the end of this year to approve a new weight-loss indication for the drug.

- read Eisai's release

Special Reports: 10 Top-selling Diabetes Drugs - 2012 | Obesity drugs: Where are we now?