Preparing for a Home Run

Today, some good news and bad news for companies selling drugs to treat multiple sclerosis.

First, the bad news. Teva Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: TEVA  ) , Biogen Idec (Nasdaq: BIIB  ) plus Elan (NYSE: ELN  ) , Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) plus EMD Serono, and others are going to have some new competition. Novartis (NYSE: NVS  ) announced today that Extavia was approved by the Food and Drug Administration

Now, the good news. Extavia isn't likely to become a blockbuster, and those companies won't even have to change their branding message to adjust to the new competition. Extavia, after all, is the exact same drug as Bayer's Betaseron, which has been available in the U.S. for 16 years. I may be going out on a limb, here, but I'm assuming "BetaseronToo" got rejected pretty early by the marketing department at Novartis.

Why would Novartis want to sell an exact copy of another company's drug? That's a rather silly question to ask of a company that has a generic-drug division, although Extavia isn't actually a generic drug. Novartis and Bayer bought the former partners for Betaseron, Chiron and Schering AG, respectively. Then, in a complicated deal, Bayer bought the manufacturing facility that makes Betaseron from Novartis, and gave Novartis the right to develop and sell its own version of the drug. In a twist only corporate lawyers could love, Bayer will manufacture Extavia in return for a double-digit royalty from Novartis. Thus, the birth of Extavia.

Betaseron had sales of about 1.14 billion euro last year (about $1.6 billion at current exchange rates), so there's quite a market for Novartis to try and snatch away from Bayer, not to mention the possibility of grabbing patients away from the other multiple sclerosis drugs. Novartis is going to have to work hard to get doctors to prescribe the drug, though, considering how late Extavia is to the party. The company plans to differentiate Extavia by making it patient-friendly with offers like one-on-one injection training.

The real benefit of Extavia is that it gives Novartis a warm-up for its chance at a real blockbuster in FTY720. This is an oral multiple sclerosis drug that Novartis plans to submit for approval by the end of the year. (I'm sure the marketing department will have something to say about that name, too.) Having a sales force in place should help Novartis compete with Merck KGaA, which is also developing an oral multiple sclerosis drug, assuming they're both approved. Merck KGaA already has experience marketing multiple sclerosis drugs because it sells Rebif outside the U.S.

Extavia may not be Novartis' shot to score big, but the practice squad could help the team hit a home run the next time out.

Questions, comments, and suggested brand names for FTY720 are all welcome in the comments box below.

Novartis is a Motley Fool Global Gains selection. Investing internationally doesn't have to be scary, and it can certainly be profitable. Click here to grab a 30-day trial subscription to the newsletter so you can see all our current picks for a global economy.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Elan is a Rule Breakers selection. Pfizer is an Inside Value recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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