Express Scripts ready to favor AbbVie hep C prospect--provided it undercuts Gilead

Express Scripts CMO Steve Miller

Okay, AbbVie. The ball's in your court, as far as Express Scripts is concerned.

The pharmacy benefits manager ($ESRX)--which has made its feelings well known when it comes to the high cost of Gilead's ($GILD) next-gen hepatitis C drugs--says it may quickly change its preferred drug formulary to favor an anticipated challenger from the Illinois company ($ABBV), Reuters reports, provided it's clinically equivalent--and less expensive, of course.

On a Wednesday conference call with analysts, CMO Steve Miller echoed comments he's made time and again since the $84,000-per-treatment-course Sovaldi--which broke the record for fastest drug launch ever and now makes up half the biotech's brand-new $94,500 combo regimen, Harvoni--rolled out. "The cost of it is unsustainable for many of our plans," he said, as quoted by the news service.

While Express Scripts has been pinning its hopes on eventual competitors--earlier this year, it began assembling a coalition to exclude Sovaldi until lower-cost rivals hit the market, forcing prices down--there's no guarantee AbbVie or others will undercut Gilead's trailblazers. A spokeswoman for the North Chicago company told Reuters no price has been disclosed for the investigational drug, which AbbVie hopes can win approval and launch before year's end.

But one thing is clear: The Abbott spinoff expects blockbuster numbers from the three-drug cocktail. On a call with investors Friday, CEO Richard Gonzalez listed it among the prospects he expects to drove "top-tier EPS growth starting in 2015 and beyond."

"We have a much better idea of the size of the HCV market and our potential to stake out a significant position in that market," he said.

As for the size of that market, Sovaldi provided more than a couple hints with its sprint to the blockbuster benchmark, which it hit in April after winning FDA approval in December. For the first three quarters of 2014, it's racked up sales of nearly $8.6 billion.

But analysts expect Harvoni to go even further, assuming payers cooperate. And so far, it has: Total prescriptions for the therapy's second week on the market totaled 1,111, compared with the 822 Sovaldi tallied in its second week, ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum wrote in a note, citing IMS Health data. That means in the second week of launch, Harvoni has 1.35 times Sovaldi's scripts.

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Special Reports: The new drug approvals of 2013 - Sovaldi - Gilead | The most influential people in biopharma today - Steve Miller - Express Scripts