Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Wacky World of Generics: Fosamax Edition

Today, Merck bids a fond farewell to its Fosamax franchise, as the first generic versions enter the market.

Three generic firms are entering the market: Barr and Teva with approved ANDAs, and Watson with an "authorized" generic supplied by Merck. Next up will be generic versions of the Fosamax D formulation (expected in April) and then numerous additional generics in August when the 180-day generic exclusivity period awarded to Barr and Teva expires.

Authorized generic launches are hardly surprising anymore, as brand firms are committed to maximizing the value of their brands through the patent expiry period. What is surprising is the unusual lengths Merck went to to give Fosamax a send-off in style.

The company ran a promotional campaign in the final months before patent expiration highlighting the upcoming Fosamax generic launches, and even created a website called to promote Fosamax. Merck drove traffic to the site via links on its main Fosamax website as well as through a "multi-channel physician campaign" that included direct mail and journal ads.

We would love to show you the site, which featured a neat animated video of a Fosamax patient on the beach, but Merck has taken it down. The site "served its purpose," a spokesman says. Here is Google's cached version of the page, which has no graphics but at least shows the basic messages Merck was pushing.

The overall theme: Fosamax allows patients to "Save Now and Save Later." In other words, starting new patients on Fosamax rather than a competitor like Boniva or Actonel meant lower copays right away (since most managed care plans had Fosamax on tier 2) and then even lower copays now that generics are available.

In other words, Merck did everything in its power to build a bigger market for the generics that launched today.

What's going on here? Does anyone else remember the good old days when Big Pharma companies would simply shift resources away from brands in their final quarters of exclusivity, jack up the price, and concentrate on new products?

Well, those days are obviously over. "Maximizing the value of the brand" (or, perhaps, milking every drop from a cash cow) is critical business for big pharma at a time when new product launches have slowed to a trickle and cost cutting is the order of the day. At a time when hitting profit targets is a quarter to quarter war of attrition, every penny counts.

That is why Merck not only ran the campaign, but also highlighted it to investors during its December 4 analysts day. "We are prepared for a number of different potential scenarios to insure that we maximize the value of the Fosamax franchise," CFO Peter Kellogg said, and then discussed as an example.

Merck says it expects Fosamax revenues in the range of $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion worldwide in 2008 (down from $3 billion in 2007). That's a big drop no matter what, but the difference between the high and low ends of the range is $300 million. You can bet Merck would love to have that in revenues rather than make it up in job cuts or other efficiency initiatives.

So, if the going generic campaign helped drive higher brand sales in the first six weeks of the year (and then higher sales of the authorized generic during the spring and summer) it would be a big deal for Merck.

Did it work? Its hard to say. Fosamax revenues increased 1% in the fourth quarter to $522 million. That is not exactly spectacular growth, but it reversed a downward trend in sales throughout the year, and helped Merck hit its goal of $3 billion in global revenue for the brand in 2007.

During Merck's fourth quarter call in January, Kellogg credited Fosamax's strong showing to its favorable formulary position in anticipation of generic entry, but did not specifically comment on whether the Going Generic campaign made a difference. And a Merck spokesman declined to provide any additional details about the performance of the campaign, saying the company didn't want to share any lessons learned with the competition.

Whether or not the campaign itself worked, the idea is here to stay. In today's world, Big Pharma has not choice but to drive sales growth of all its brands through every means possible--even if it means building up the market for its generic competitors.

That may be a sign of desperation for Merck, but it is a nice treat for Barr and Teva who unequivocally benefit from anything Merck did to increase the size of the Fosamax market over the past few months.

Our only question: when will Teva and Barr be launching

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