Arena Pharmaceuticals (ARNA) is not sitting still and awaiting the U.S. launch of its anti-obesity drug Belviq. In fact the company is quite active in trying to gain approval in Europe and is seeking partners both there and in China.
At the JP Morgan Chase Annual Healthcare Conference this week, CEO Jack Lief stated that Arena is seeking partnerships to help get its drug distributed in other markets. Not to long ago Arena signed a deal with Ildong Pharmaceuticals for distribution in South Korea. Now, as anticipated the company is working to tap into other markets. Lief expressed that the next biggest market after the U.S. is China. In the United States, where Belviq is getting ready to launch, the partner is Eisai.
It is quite possible that Eisai could be a suitor for markets such as Europe, and in fact it is interesting that Eisai has not yet made such a deal as yet. The U.S. deal has some hefty payments to Arena, and Eisai gets a very good return on that investment. Essentially it appears that Arena is now able to strike the best possible deals and can be quite selective during that process.
Arena's Belviq gained FDA approval in 2012 and recently garnered the needed proposed DEA scheduling. Once the DEA scheduling is finalized the company will be able to launch Belviq in the U.S. and be the second drug available on the market. Competitor Vivus (VVUS) launched its drug, Qsymia, in late September of 2012 and now has over 12,000 prescriptions after a rocky start. Orexigen (OREX) is another competitor, but as yet does not have FDA approval for Contrave.
While the process for all of the anti-obesity drugs has been full of hurdles, none appears to be bigger than managing expectations. Because it had been well over a decade since a prescription drug to fight obesity had been approved, expectations have been quite high. The term "Blockbuster" has been bandied about many times, and while possible, there are other hints we need to look at.
In many ways Vivus is paving the way because its drug is already on the market. Recent results have proven that perhaps the biggest obstacle is consumer price point. This battle is being fought on two fronts by Vivus. The first is getting insurance companies to cover the pills and the second was starting a free trial. Vivus seems to have found a sweet spot in consumer pricing at about $150 per month. If Arena can somehow land in that price range we could see impressive numbers from the company.
Arena should launch Belviq in about 8 weeks. The proposed DEA scheduling carries a 30 day comment period, a 45 day response, a proposed schedule, and then a final schedule after 30 days. While little can be done about the 30 day comment and 45 day response period, it is possible to forego the final 30 day period and Eisai has requested a waiver to that affect. This puts product launch somewhere early in March.
Arena management seems to be taking all of the right steps in ensuring success of Belviq. Between getting U.S. approvals and partners as well as working on other markets, there is a lot of promise. One key here will be timing in how Arena can roll out Belviq in new markets.
Disclosure: I am long ARNA.
Additional disclosure: I have no position in Vivus or Orexigen