How Much Is 10 Days Worth in the Hep C Battle?

Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) got off the starting line first, but this is a marathon -- and I doubt its lead on Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: VRTX  ) will amount to much.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Merck's hepatitis C drug Victrelis on Friday, which could give it a 10-day head start over Vertex's Incivek. The FDA's goal is to make a decision about Incivek by May 23, although it's not bound to that date.

Even if the agency takes a few extra days or even a week, it won't make much difference. Hepatitis C is a life-threatening illness, but it isn't an immediate life-threatening illness. The virus causes liver damage, but it happens rather slowly. Patients can live with the disease for years without any major issues. Doctors aren't going to rush out and treat the estimated 3.2 million Americans with the disease in the next seven days.

A long delay, like the FDA requiring more clinical trials for Incivek, would be a major problem -- not that anyone is expecting that. Even under that worst-case scenario, there would still be patients available when it was approved. At least, Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD  ) , Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) , and many others coming up from behind certainly hope so. For these firms, gaining additional time might allow them to catch up with potentially similar drugs under development. However, don't necessarily count on this to be the case.

While the slight lead may not amount to anything, Merck does have a marketing advantage because the drugmaker already sells Pegintron, one of the current treatments to which Victrelis and Incivek will be added. Its sales force could hit the ground running more quickly than that of Vertex. Experience with European hepatologists will also benefit Merck while it's competing with Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) , which will market Incivek in Europe for Vertex.

But Incivek has generally put out better data than Victrelis, so it's not clear how much Merck's experience will really benefit sales.

We should find out starting in seven days or so.

Keep track of Merck and Vertex as they do battle in the hepatitis C market. Click here to add them to My Watchlist, which will help you keep track of all our Foolish analysis on the companies.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Gilead Sciences, and Johnson & Johnson and have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 4:47 PM, joy2808 wrote:

    Many of those with hep c are baby boomers in their 3rd and 4th decade of hep c. At such time the disease creates secondary conditions such as liver fibrosis (precursor to cirrhosis) which calls for somewhat more immediate attention and halting the hep c virus replication is a major concern.

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