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Almost a great day for Merck

Helen Palmer May 18, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We could go either way with this one. Start off by telling you about Merck’s new vaccine to control the human papilloma virus. It’ll prevent most cases of cervical cancer and save 300,000 lives a year. Or, we could tell you about Vioxx. The painkiller Merck pulled off the market in late 2004. And how there’s news today the company knew all along it was dangerous. We’ll go with the vaccine.

An FDA advisory panel voted this afternoon to approve the new treatment. Helen Palmer reports from the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH . . . it’s a critical development for women. And for the company, too.

HELEN PALMER: Cancer doctors have been dreaming of the day when the first vaccine to prevent the disease is developed. Merck’s new vaccine just might be that breakthrough, says MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Maurie Markham.

MAURIE MARKMAN: That has been the Holy Grail. . . . So I cannot emphasize enough how important this is.

Nearly 300,000 women die of cervical cancer every year. Most of them are caused by the human papilloma virus. Merck’s vaccine — Gardasil — targets the most common strains, and could prevent 70% of infections. The panel voted unanimously that the vaccine was safe for girls as young as 9. The problem is, the girls who need it most are in the developing world, where it could be far too pricey.

Merck won’t say what it will charge if the FDA gives Gardasil final approval. But a government study reckoned the three-injection course could cost about $300 — not out of line for a breakthorugh product, say the experts. And oncologist Maurie Markham says even at $300 it would would be cost effective.

MAURIE MARKMAN: $300 is a lot of money to shell out, but any time you do another Pap smear and it’s abnormal, and you do one after that and you have to do a test . . . very quickly that’ll add up to more than $300.

So if clinicians believe it’s worth the price, Gardasil could really help Merck fill a cash-flow hole at the moment.

LES FUNTLEDER: It could be a billion dollars worth of vaccine. Potentially more . . .

Les Funtleder of Miller Tabak says it won’t quite replace the $2.5 billion the company lost when it pulled arthritis drug Vioxx a couple of years ago — but it will help. Merck’s facing some 11,000 lawsuits filed by people who claim the drug hurt them, and analysis of the latest study suggests that damage might be long lasting. And experts have already tracked one long-lasting effect — a new survey from pharmacy benefit manager Medco found doctors are much more leery of drugs and their safety than they were five years ago.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: Wall Street gave Merck a moderatly enthusiastic thumbs up today. Its shares rose almost 2 percent.

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