Vertex's Incivek unseats Celebrex as fastest drug launch ever

A new report starkly illustrates how quickly things can change in the pharma industry, showing how a drug darling becomes a market dud.

An evaluation of data by EP Vantage says that Vertex's ($VRTX) hepatitis C treatment Incivek, a drug that is now seen as a has-been, holds the top spot as the fastest drug launch ever. It unseated Pfizer's ($PFE) arthritis drug Celebrex, which had held the record since 1999. Incivek, launched in May 2011, sold $1.56 billion in its first four quarters on the market, compared with $1.55 billion by Celebrex.

Incivek's rapid ascendency is now being matched by its flameout. Wednesday, the compay reported $85.6 million in the third-quarter sales for the drug, down from $254.3 million during the same period a year earlier. Its sales have been gutted as patients and doctors await new oral hep C drug cocktails that won't require taking the much maligned interferon therapy, which has some nasty side effects.

Only two other drugs have ever hit blockbuster status in four quarters, EP Vantage found in its evaluation of EvaluatePharma data. One of those also illustrates the fact that fast out of the blocks does not necessarily mean unfettered success. They are Novo Nordisk's ($NVO) diabetes drug Victoza, which had sales of $1.11 billion in its first four quarters, and Merck's ($MRK) pain drug Vioxx, with $1.01 billion. Vioxx was eventually pulled from the market in 2004 because of heart risks. As for Victoza, it continues to have strong sales, but the drugmaker expects its growth to wane in 2014 from double digits to high single digits, a trend that worries analysts.

While it took 14 years for the drug-launch status of Celebrex to be unseated, EP Vantage says Incevick's record could fall faster--much faster. It points to hep C drug candidate sofosbuvir from Gilead Sciences ($GILD), one of the highly anticipated hep C products that undermined Incivek. But it likes the odds even more for Biogen Idec's ($BIIB) multiple sclerosis pill Tecfidera, a drug that is on FiercePharma's list of Top 10 Drug Launch Superstars, along with others called out by EP Vantage. Biogen this week reported third-quarter sales of about $286 million for Tecfidera, surpassing analyst forecasts and allowing the company to up its full-year guidance in the process.

The EP Vantage list is of the top 10 drug launches. It includes some drugs that have been around for awhile, like Pfizer's Lipitor and Viagra, but also some newcomers like Eylea, the drug from Regeneron ($REGN), sales of which have been on fire. In addition to those, Amgen's ($AMGN) Neulasta, Roche's Lucentis and Gilead's Atripla are among the top 10 fastest launches.

- read the EP Vantage story with chart