Faced with flat sales, Vivus offers free trial on Qsymia weight loss drug

Vivus ($VVUS) has been under the microscope since it launched its new weight-loss drug Qsymia. It's the first of several obesity fighters set to hit the market, and all eyes are on its performance, both as an indicator of the company's fortunes and of its rivals' prospects.

So far, Qsymia hasn't rocketed into the stratosphere. Closely watched prescription numbers have increased in fits and starts, with the overall trend mostly flat over the past four weeks--typically around 1,200 new scripts reported per week.

The company isn't satisfied with that. According to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it's offering a free two-week trial to eligible patients. The Get Started! program is trying to capitalize on the tried-and-true marketing power of the word "free." But in Qsymia's case, it's also an attempt to circumvent insurers' reluctance to reimburse weight-loss drugs--and to help covered patients avoid high co-pays, at least at first.

It's just one of the company's moves to change that prescription trend. Officials recently said the company is trying to persuade payers that do cover the drug to cut their co-pays. It's also trying to get the drug to retail pharmacies; right now, it's only available via mail order because of a risk-management plan.

If Vivus can goose those script numbers upward, then that might calm some restless investors, who have been understandably unhappy with the stock's recent performance. Earlier this month, one big shareholder called for a sale of the company to a bigger drugmaker that could better market the drug.

Cowen & Co. analyst Simos Simeonidis has been cautioning investors against reading too much into early prescription numbers; it'll take time to build a market in obesity drugs, considering all the previous failures in the space, he figures. But he, too, believes the company won't move the needle much unless it has help. He advocates teaming up with a Big Pharma partner.

- see the Vivus SEC filing