New Merck drugs help push Vioxx off front page

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Merck & Co.’s recent launches of a new vaccine against cervical cancer and a promising diabetes drug could pay another major dividend: helping to take the focus off Vioxx, Merck’s chief executive officer said.

Merck MRK.N is counting on its Gardasil vaccine and Januvia diabetes pill to help revive earnings growth in the face of competition from cheaper generic forms of its medicines and costs of fighting almost 24,000 Vioxx lawsuits.

Vioxx was withdrawn in 2004 after the arthritis drug was linked to heart attacks among long-term users, spurring a flood of lawsuits alleging harm from the medicine and widespread news coverage.

“I tell the (Merck) organization if you want Vioxx off the front page, if you want it out of the news, we have to put Gardasil on the front page and have to put Januvia on the front page,” Richard Clark, Merck’s CEO said at the Reuters Summit in New York on Wednesday.

Januvia, expected to become a blockbuster product, was approved last month as a new type of oral therapy for type 2 diabetes.

Gardasil was approved by U.S. regulators in June and is expected to generate annual sales of up to $2 billion. It blocks the main strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer.

Gardasil has gotten a valuable jump on a similar vaccine being developed by GlaxoSmithKline GSK.L, called Cervarix.

London-based Glaxo announced two weeks ago that Cervarix will now be filed for approval in the United States by April 2007, one quarter later than initially hoped. That would put it more than a year behind Gardasil.

The delay will extend Merck’s first-mover advantage in the United States, the world’s most lucrative market for pharmaceuticals. But Glaxo CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier played down its significance on Wednesday.

“A three-month delay on a drug that’s going to be a blockbuster for 15 to 20 years is not to me a big event,” he told the Summit.

Garnier said there was still a chance Cervarix would get an accelerated review from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, since it could help a wider group of women.

The FDA approved Gardasil for girls and women aged nine to 26. Glaxo says its vaccine has produced an immune response in women ages 26 to 55 and hopes to win approval for older women.

Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler