Sovaldi's not the only superhero launch: Meet the rest of the pharma Avengers

Gilead's Sovaldi--Courtesy of Gilead

Barrels of ink have been spilled this year explaining how fast, strong and bold the launch of Gilead Sciences' ($GILD) hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi has been. The all-but-instant megablockbuster not only beat previous contenders for fastest launch ever. It was playing in a league all by itself.

ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum decided to put Sovaldi--and a raft of other "legendary" drug launches--in visual context. Namely, trend lines for sales quarter-by-quarter after launch, for the likes of Lipitor, Pfizer's ($PFE) best-selling drug ever; AbbVie's ($ABBV) Humira, currently the best-selling drug in the world; Roche's ($RHHBY) breakthrough cancer drugs Herceptin, Avastin and Rituxan; and Merck's ($MRK) Januvia franchise. And then there are the newer stars, such as Regeneron's ($REGN) eye injection Eylea, Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) hep C fighter Olysio, and Biogen Idec's ($BIIB) multiple sclerosis pill Tecfidera.

We already know that Sovaldi's line looks like the route up K2. Lipitor is more like a long trek up and through the Rockies, ending at about $2.5 billion 20 quarters after launch--still shy of Sovaldi's third-quarter-on-sale figure of $3 billion-plus.

The more recent entries offer some similarly dramatic angles: The most recent winner in the launch challenge, Vertex Pharmaceuticals' ($VRTX) hep C treatment--which Sovaldi literally pushed off the market--leaps upward quickly and keeps gaining steam until a long slow slide right off the bottom of the chart, with less than three years under its belt at the time.

Then there's Olysio, which makes a quick jog up to some $750 million three quarters in, passing both Incivek and Lipitor on its way. Tecfidera almost parallels Lipitor.

As for the rest of these legendary launches, most are more like long hikes. Slow, steady upward progress, with not much zigging and zagging. Avastin and Januvia climb highest by the end of that 20-quarter period, and Eylea is tracking Januvia's path upward. J&J's prostate cancer drug Zytiga is following right along with Roche's cancer blockbusters, as is its newer competitior, Xtandi, sold by Astellas and Medivation.

Just for reference, Schoenebaum included the first iPhone on his chart. How did these drugs fare against that dramatic Apple rollout? Let's just say that the only pharma launches that come close are Tecfidera, Lipitor, Olysio, Incivek ... and, of course, Sovaldi.

Special Reports: Top 15 drug launch superstars - Eylea - Tecfidera - Zytiga - Xtandi