Gilead's Sovaldi sales through the roof already, analyst predicts at least $8B this year

With a revolutionary approach to hepatitis C and a price tag of $84,000 per 12-week treatment course, analysts expected big sales from Gilead's ($GILD) Sovaldi. Some even forecast it would reach $9 billion or more by 2017, at which level it would surpass Pfizer's ($PFE) Lipitor to take the crown for biggest-selling drug of all time. But none expected the exponential growth the drug is posting right now.

New Sovaldi prescriptions were up 20% week-over-week for the week ended Feb. 28--the 12th week of Gilead's launch. And according to ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum, that has current projections looking rather slim.

"If prescriptions were to NEVER GROW AGAIN (i.e. flat-line from here), I estimate that 2014 sales will be $8B. If scrips grow an average of 1.5% week over week, I estimate that 2014 sales will be about $11B," he wrote in a note to investors. "The current sell side consensus estimate is around $4.8B."

And as RBC analyst Michael Yee notes, Sovaldi's weekly total prescriptions are tracking 114% higher than what Incivek--a Vertex ($VRTX) hep C drug that holds the title for fastest drug launch ever after raking in $1.56 billion in four quarters--did in its first full quarter of launch. Factor in Sovaldi's sticker price, which comes in about 70% higher than Incivek's cost at launch time, and he estimates quarterly sales of $1.27 billion, versus a consensus of about $550 million.

But this is only the beginning, according to the company, which says it still has a long way to go when it comes to winning over doctors--and, thus, lots of remaining room for sales growth.

Gilead "recently commented at our conference that so far only about 20% of the targeted docs have prescribed Sovaldi, indicating that the launch still has some way to go," Yee wrote in a note. "In that effort, the company also recently started DTC advertising, which may increase awareness of the drug and help maintain strong patient in-flow throughout the year."

Payers, of course, could change all that. January held threats of pharmacy benefits managers scouting about for new ways to control drug spending, with Express Scripts ($ESRX) reportedly ready to take a tough stance on the pricey new generation of hep C drugs. But Gilead has said payers are comfortable with the high costs, especially when looking at the long-term benefits--a new liver alone costs about $300,000 in the U.S., as COO John Milligan has pointed out.

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