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Teva Is Running Scared

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Chief medical Fool Brian Orelli thinks that newly approved multiple sclerosis drug Gilenya from Novartis (NYSE: NVS  ) might not grab much of the MS therapy market after all. But Teva Pharmaceutical (Nasdaq: TEVA  ) , which makes established MS drug Copaxone, seems to be shaking in its boots.

Because I use Copaxone, Teva sends me marketing materials and life advice every now and then. The latest missive focused squarely on the rise of Gilenya, which is taken orally, and why I shouldn't rush to adopt this new, unproven, possibly dangerous therapy. The headlines in the newsletter, along with Teva's related arguments, include the following:

  • "What we DON'T know" -- Gilenya is presumed to reduce immune cell counts, which can interfere with the body's natural defenses.
  • "New vs established" -- "[L]ittle is known about [Gilenya's] long-term safety and efficacy."
  • What we DO know -- Copaxone "is trusted, proven, and stands the test of time -- a smart choice in therapy today and well into the future."

Fire up the spinner!
OK, that's just regular marketing spin: point out the negatives of a new competitor while highlighting why your old solution is better. I get it. But the spin machine really goes into overdrive on the next page under the heading, "Let's look at how some people have made Copaxone a positive part of their daily routine." Teva's definition of "positive" is what I'd call "tolerable" at best:

  • "It's routine, and it does not interfere with my life."
  • "With Copaxone, you can choose when you want to do your daily injection."
  • "Taking my shot every day is a part of a program of motivation to stay committed to being on this medicine regimen so I can be present for my kids."

Really, Teva? I log my injections in a nifty day planner Teva sends out every year. The injection pain typically rates between a 2 and a 4 on a 10-point scale, but sometimes it's a lot worse. My needle phobia isn't getting any better after two years of this hassle, and my insurance company gets billed more than $3,700 a month for the privilege of keeping me supplied. It must suck for UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH  ) that I signed my Golden Rule health policy a year before this diagnosis, thus becoming a rather large cost center almost right away.

All I'm doing is slowing down the progression of my disease on a statistical level with no proof that Copaxone is actually helping me at all. But it's routine, done at my convenience, and I'm motivating myself to stay on the medicine just by doing it -- so it's all right. Right? Yeah, right.

But that's the best Teva can do here. Taking these shots is a hassle for some and a terror for others. There's just no way to make it sound pleasant, even in blatantly sponsored marketing materials. There is so much research activity around MS right now that I can't really fault Teva for running scared. But that's no reason to insult my intelligence like Teva just did.

Teva does have a point, though
I'm not jumping on the Gilenya bandwagon yet. As much as I hate my needles, the auto-injector at least makes the process bearable, even if I flinch every time I push that button. Competing therapies are even worse: Avonex by Biogen Idec (Nasdaq: BIIB  ) is an intramuscular injection, rather than Copaxone's gentler subcutaneous delivery and less brutal needle. Both Avonex and Merck KgaA's Rebif often produce flu-like symptoms that I would like to avoid. Elan (NYSE: ELN  ) and Biogen have a whole different ballgame in their Tysabri, and I'd be on that in a heartbeat if its brain-infection risks didn't scare the bejesus out of my wife. Plus, there's still a needle involved.

A pill such as Gilenya would be nice -- if early tests hadn't shown side effects like possible liver damage and bradycardia. The drug was first intended to treat rejection of kidney transplants, but was rejected because it was too toxic at the required dosage levels. The MS-approved dosage is far smaller, but do I really want to put toxins in my system on a daily basis, even at low levels?

So I'm staying in the Copaxone camp because I don't like side effects, and many fellow MS patients are probably thinking the same thing. That doesn't mean that Teva can rest easy, and the company is in fact working on an MS pill of its own together with privately held Active Biotech. Other pills are being developed by sanofi-aventis (NYSE: SNY  ) and Biogen Idec, and chances are that at least one of these might be comparable to Copaxone in both safety and efficacy while beating it by miles in the convenience vector. That's where Copaxone becomes irrelevant and Teva can say goodbye to about $800 million of quarterly sales.

For now, I'm dealing with the Copaxone and actively enjoying the effects of my Ampyra pills from Acorda Therapeutics (Nasdaq: ACOR  ) , which reduce my only symptom -- limping like a zombie -- to a minor nuisance. But I'll be waving a not-so-fond farewell to the needles the first chance I get. Teva can try to spin the convenience and (somehow) comfort of those shots all it wants, but I'm not fooled. It's just not quite time to take that plunge yet.

Until then, Copaxone remains the leading MS therapy and keeps growing its sales quarter by quarter. Enjoy that while it lasts, Teva. Unfortunately for Novartis, I agree with Brian's conclusion that Gilenya's success could be short-lived.

Follow the development of the MS drug market by adding major players like Elan, Biogen, and Teva to your Foolish watchlist.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. UnitedHealth Group is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Elan is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Novartis is a Motley Fool Global Gains recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on UnitedHealth Group. The Fool owns shares of Teva Pharmaceutical and UnitedHealth Group. 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. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2010, at 10:59 AM, boroj22 wrote:

    Since you have MS, please look at this therapy:

    There are many clinics performing this procedure in the U.S. Here is a FB site where patients discuss it:

    Map of countries performing the procedure:

    You can also search CCSVI on YouTube, watch before and after videos.

  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2010, at 11:20 AM, TMFZahrim wrote:

    Yes, looked into this and discussed it with my doctors. The studies done so far have been small, and it's dangerous jumping to conclusions based on such limited data. Moreover, the procedure may sound simple but you're still talking about a form of brain surgery and vessels do burst from inflation mishaps. I wouldn't be willing to do this until it's proven both safe and effective beyond the shadow of a doubt, which is not where we're at today. Anything is possible, I just need to see convincing proof.


  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2010, at 4:46 PM, boroj22 wrote:

    It's not brain surgery, it's angioplasty of the veins, a procedure that has been around for 30 years. I'm glad you heard about, I think it's important for MS patients to know their options. I had the procedure performed in New York back in July. Immediate benefits were my limp went away, no more pain and I sleep soundly during the night. They found stenosis in the left jugular, 2 areas of stenosis in my right jugular and azygous vein. These areas were ballooned, procedure took about 45 minutes and was out eating dinner within a few hours. Unfortunately, people with SPMS and PPMS don't respond to drug treatments such as Copaxone, they don't have any other options. This procedure has helped many people get their lives back.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2010, at 7:58 AM, mrconnors0531 wrote:

    With 45 billion in blockbuster drugs going generic in the next 5 years Teva is in a good spot.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2010, at 12:36 PM, 8infinite8 wrote:

    Welcome to the club, Anders. I'm on Beta myself. Weight lifting helps too.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2010, at 3:15 PM, energysystems wrote:

    mrconnor-The number is actually much, much larger then 45 billion in annual sales. It's actually 140 billion in annual sales that will be coming off patent protection over the next 5 years. Some peg the number closer to 90 billion. But, Of the top 10 biggest drugs in the world, nine will lose patent protection; of the top 20, 18 will lose protection. Although Teva doesn't have a dividend yield that compares with most other large pharma stocks, they have a distinct advantage in the generic field. I'm long Teva, and can see this stock doubling over the next 5 years.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2010, at 11:25 PM, teebeecan wrote:

    Now don't complain so much about taking a old friend of ours who lives in Calgary but visits us a couple of times a year here in Saskatoon was just here and we discussed her needle taking - for diabetes. She states this year id the 40th year since she started injecting herself every day! Imagine, 40 years. And also the blood sugar tests several times a day. She keeps going..walks miles every day


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