Taking Aim at a Pfizer Hit

It's hard to underestimate the importance of Lipitor to Pfizer Inc. (PFE ) The cholesterol-lowering blockbuster--one of a class of drugs called statins--brings in $6.5 billion in annual revenues. That makes it the world's top-selling drug, and it could become the world's first $10 billion drug. It was launched in 1997 by Warner-Lambert, which Pfizer acquired in 2000--specifically to get its hands on Lipitor.

Now, a new statin from AstraZeneca PLC (AZN ) is likely to trigger a fierce marketing battle. The drug, called Crestor, could receive Food & Drug Administration approval as early as this summer. Several studies, including data released at the March meeting of the American College of Cardiology, have shown Crestor may be even more potent than Lipitor.

For now, no one is predicting that Crestor will knock Lipitor off its perch as the No. 1 statin. That's partly because physicians are already comfortable with Pfizer's drug, and partly due to the financial muscle behind the product. "Pfizer has arguably the most effective marketing organization in the world," says Lloyd S. Kurtz, health-care analyst at Harris Bretall Sullivan & Smith, which holds about 4.5 million Pfizer shares. "Our money's on Lipitor."

Also working in Pfizer's favor is the August, 2001, withdrawal of the statin Baycol from the market. The drug was pulled by its manufacturer, Bayer (BAYZY ), after reports that a number of patients died from a rare muscle side effect. That may happen with Lipitor and other statins, too--but much less frequently. AstraZeneca says that its studies show that Crestor's safety profile is in line with other statins still on the market. But Pfizer may be able to convince some doctors that they are better off using a drug they know well, rather than trying a new statin that could have unknown problems. Says Dr. Rob Scott, vice-president of Pfizer's cardiovascular and metabolic group: "A new drug will have to show it is not another Baycol."

Pfizer, however, has created a bit of an opening for AstraZeneca. It snatched the top spot from Merck & Co.'s (MRK ) Zocor by hammering home the message that Lipitor was more effective. Now, doctors may be more receptive to AstraZeneca's message that Crestor is more potent still. Expect a marketing blitz from both sides.

By Amy Barrett

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