Can Merck, Bristol-Myers, or AbbVie Compete with Gilead’s Cure for Hepatitis C?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The race for a hepatitis C cure is closing in fast; Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (NYSE:BMY) and Merck & Co. Inc. (NYSE:MRK) both announced Thursday that clinical trials of their experimental drugs for the virus have produced positive results.

According to a Wall Street Journal report Friday, doctors are pleased that other drugmakers are succeeding in their quest for a cure for hepatitis C, but most still believe that Gilead Sciences Inc.‘s (NASDAQ:GILD) Sovaldi has the lead, despite the fact that the company has come under fire recently from both legislators and insurers for proposing to charge $1,000 a pill for the medicine.

Gilead presented pivotal data regarding their Sovaldi hepatitis C cure on Friday at a London conference of the European Association for the Study of the Liver; Gilead’s Sciences pill exhibited an impressive 94 percent cure rate after eight weeks of treatment with its experimental pill which contains a combination of two drugs.

Sovaldi is expected to dominate the market for hepatitis C medicine and Wall Street analysts are predicting that the pill is likely to generate as much as $9.1 billion in 2017, according to the The Wall Street Journal.

At the same conference, Merck presented data which showed that its experimental drug produced a 98 percent cure rate after twelve weeks of treatment, and similarly, Abbvie Inc. (NYSE:ABBV) and Bristol-Myers Squibb are both in the process of developing a cure; trials of their respective drugs have both produced a cure rate above 90 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Not only was the daclatasvir and asunaprevir regimen highly effective among study participants, it was also very well tolerated, even among sicker patients with more advanced liver disease,” said Bristol-Myers’ lead study investigator, Michael P. Manns of the Hanover Medical School in Germany, of Bristol-Myers’ trial.

In general, both physicians and analysts still believe Gilead Science’s pill is the best of the line-up, though analysts suspect that Merck will try to compete with Gilead by pricing their pill more competitively.

“We assume Merck will use aggressive pricing to maximize market share,” said Citi analyst Yaron Werber, in a reserach note, per The Wall Street Journal. Merck is expected to become the second-largest player in the market for hepatitis C medicine, with AbbVie’s treatment regimen coming in just behind Merck.

Currently Merck is actually a little behind its competitors in regards to its pill’s development timeline, but is still thought to be Gilead’s biggest potential competitor, as both AbbVie and Bristol-Myers’ treatment regimens involve more pills and more drugs, despite boasting equally impressive results. Merck’s treatment, like Gilead’s, involves just a single pill.

“Merck has begun a Phase III trial in (previously untreated patients) using one pill, once per day. This should increase everyone’s confidence that Merck really has a regimen competitive with Gilead’s,” said ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum, per Reuters.

According to The Wall Street Journal, an estimated 170 million people are believed to be infected with hepatitis C worldwide; left untreated the disease can lead to further liver complications, such as cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, or the need for a liver transplant; the disease is spread through the blood, often via contaminated needles.