The New Diet Pill Players: Arena and Vivus

Over the past 24 hours, two developments finally occurred to suggest overweight consumers will soon have an expanding choice of prescription diet pill options. First, Arena Pharmaceuticals (ARNA) disclosed that the US Drug Enforcement Agency has listed its Belviq drug on as a Schedule IV controlled substance, which means the medicaiton has a low potential for abuse. As a result, Belviq should start appearing in pharmacies some time in June.

Separately, Vivus (VVUS) has now succumbed to shareholder pressure and begun holdings talks with large drugmakers to market its Qsymia diet pill, which has so far failed to live up to its promise, despite becoming the first commercially available prescription diet pill to be approved by the FDA in more than a decade. The drug was approved last year, but Vivus steadfastedly refused to hire more than 150 sales reps in the US or consider a marketing partner, prompting its largest investor to attempt to replace Vivus board members (covered in earlier Pharma news).

ARNA Market Cap Chart

ARNA Market Cap data by YCharts

Earllier this week, Vivus retained Richard Fante, a former AstraZeneca (AZN) exec - he was president US and CEO North America and regional vice president Americas - to help evaluate commercial options for the Qsymia pill. For its part, Arena has Eisai in its corner and, as Cowen & Co. analyst Simos Simeonidis has noted, the Japanese drugmaker already has sales reps who have been detailing to physicians who treat acid reflux, suggesting a distinct advantage over the smaller and inexperienced Vivus sales team.

Consequently, an old-fashioned marketing battle may finally shape up and should attract considerable attention from investors and regulators, among others. The specter of a new crop of prescription diet pills initially excited Wall Street, given that a previous bunch flamed out - in 1998, one-half of the fen-phen combination was withdrawn, along with its chemical cousin, Redux. By 2010, the Meridia pill then sold by Abbott Laboratories (ABT) was also yanked. And the Xenical sold by Roche stalled over gastrointestinal side effects, such as orange undies.

To read the remainder of this article, go to Pharmalot.

Ed Silverman, a contributing editor of YCharts, is the founder and editor of Pharmalot. He previously reported on the pharmaceutical industry and other business topics for the Star-Ledger of New Jersey, New York Newsday and Investor’s Business Daily. He can be reached at editor@ycharts.com.

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