CVS Health Corp, one of the largest U.S. managers of drug benefits, said it would give preferred status to the hepatitis C treatments from Gilead Sciences and cover a new competing treatment from AbbVie Inc only as an exception.
The latest salvo in the battle to grab market share for new all-oral treatments for the liver-destroying hepatitis C virus follows a move last month by CVS rival Express Scripts Holding that favored AbbVie's regimen after negotiating a price discount below what Gilead had been charging its commercial customers.
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Express Scripts, the nation's largest pharmacy benefit manager, said it would cover AbbVie's Viekira Pak and exclude Gilead's Sovaldi and combination drug Harvoni. The decision had sent Gilead shares sharply lower at the time.
On Monday, Gilead shares were up 2.5 percent following the CVS announcement, while AbbVie shares were down 2.2 percent.
Gilead has come under intense criticism for the high price of its first-to-market all-oral treatment; Sovaldi costs about $1,000 per pill. Harvoni combines Sovaldi with another drug into a one-pill, once-a-day treatment with cure rates well above 90 percent.
A 12-week course of treatment with Harvoni costs about $93,500, although some patients may need just eights weeks of therapy costing about $63,000.
It was not yet known whether Gilead agreed to a substantially discounted price to secure CVS coverage. Gilead did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Express Scripts said it is still negotiating with Gilead on behalf of its plans. "Our actions have changed how pharmaceutical innovation will be rewarded in the future," spokesman Brian Henry said.
RBC Capital Markets analyst Michael Yee said the CVS move "removes near-term uncertainty for many investors who feared CVS would also strike a deal with AbbVie and put more pressure on Gilead."
AbbVie declined to say whether it was still in talks with CVS.
CVS said the Gilead drugs would be exclusive on its standard commercial formulary, as well as those for exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare Part D and Medicaid.
"Our goal was to create the lowest net-cost solution for the entire population of patients with all genotypes of hepatitis C," CVS spokeswoman Christine Cramer said in a statement.
The recently approved AbbVie regimen has similarly high cure rates, but involves more drugs and pills per day. Many patients must also take the older drug ribavirin, which can cause anemia and other side effects.
Gilead shares were up $2.28 at $97.19, while AbbVie shares were down $1.45 at $64.44.
(Reporting by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Leslie Adler)