John C. Martin, the chief executive officer of Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD), has become a billionaire on the prospects of a powerful new hepatitis C drug that’s attracting scrutiny from payers and activists over its $1,000 per pill price tag.
Gilead’s drug, Sovaldi, was approved in December, and is among the first of a new wave of hepatitis C treatments that can cure the liver disease faster and more reliably than previous drugs. Sovaldi, which costs $84,000 for a 12-week course of treatment, is expected to produce $4.2 billion in revenue this year, rising to $8.1 billion in 2015, according to the average estimate of 13 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.
“This is a huge change in the approach to hepatitis C treatment,” Leonard Berkowitz, chief of infectious diseases at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, said by phone. Sovaldi and other drugs like it are producing “spectacular improvements” in cure rates with minimal toxicity, he said.
Martin, who joined Gilead in 1990 and became CEO six years later, helped the company become the world’s largest maker of HIV medicines by developing drug combinations that are easy to use for patients, including a medicine called Atripla that combines three HIV-suppressing drugs and a pill with four anti-HIV drugs called Stribild.
Gilead, based in Foster City, California, is competing with AbbVie Inc., (ABBV) Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY) and others to develop similar combinations for hepatitis C, a virus that infects 3.2 million Americans and can lead to liver failure over time.
Companies are racing to come up with oral regimens that eliminate the need for interferon, a standard injected drug that can cause flu-like side-effects. In February, Gilead applied for U.S. approval for an interferon-free treatment that combines Sovaldi and another hepatitis C drug.
“Most people think the combination pill that Gilead has will be the biggest thing ever in hepatitis C,” said Berkowitz, who treats many HIV-positive positive patients who are co-infected with HCV.
Martin, 62, has a net worth of $1.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He owns 4.2 million shares of Gilead and 6.4 million vested options, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He’s also sold more than $550 million in Gilead stock since 2002, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The number of options and shares are in part attributable to Martin’s long tenure at the company, most of it as CEO, said Cara Miller, a spokeswoman for Gilead, in an e-mail. The cost of a 12-week regimen of Sovaldi along with interferon and another drug “is consistent with and in many cases actually less” than older treatments that require longer duration of therapy, she said.
Gilead closed down 1.6 percent to $81.45 in New York.
The billionaire, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago and an MBA from Golden Gate University, has spent most of his career working on antiviral drugs, and has been an active dealmaker, willing to pay a premium for companies with drugs that show promise.
After one of its hepatitis C compounds had setbacks in early testing, Gilead acquired Sovaldi by buying Pharmasset Inc. for almost $11 billion in 2012, at a price that represented an 89 percent premium to Pharmasset’s price before the deal was announced in November 2011. Gilead stock has more than quadrupled since then.
“It was a brilliant transaction,” said Geoffrey Porges, an analyst at New York-based Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “In antivirals, Gilead has proven itself over and over again to be ahead of the curve.”
At least half of Gilead’s $127 billion market value is attributable to expectations for its hepatitis C drugs, according to Porges. He said the company’s hepatitis C drugs could generate $16 billion in sales in 2016.
Sovaldi has attracted scrutiny over its high price. Pharmacy benefit managers such as Express Scripts Holding Co. (ESRX) and Catamaran Corp. are discussing how to pit similar drugs against each other by refusing to pay extra for a drug that is more convenient to take than another, or by subjecting hepatitis C drugs to more outside review, Bloomberg News reported in January.
Sovaldi “is the poster child for everything that is wrong with drug prices,” Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview. Sovaldi’s price will mean that some people won’t get access to the treatment, he said. He has submitted a shareholder resolution to tie executive compensation at Gilead to the affordability of its medicines.
While formulary reviews proceed, patients who need Sovaldi can still get it, Miller said.
“Almost without exception, prescriptions are being approved by commercial plans,” she said. The company has started a program to provide financial assistance to patients who need help paying for the drug, she said.
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