Merck & Co's third-quarter net income has rocketed thanks to lower charges and strong sales of a number of key drugs, notably the diabetes drugs Januvia and Janumet and the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

Net income came in at $1.69 billion, up from $342 million in the like, year-earlier period. The latter included a $950 million charge that covered legal settlements for the now-withdrawn arthritis drug Vioxx (rofecoxib).

Sales reached $12.02 billion, up 8%, but that includes 5% from foreign exchange. Merck’s best-selling treatment was once again the asthma/allergic rhinitis drug Singulair (montelukast), up 10% to $1.34 billion.

The most eye-catching performances came from newer products; Januvia (sitagliptin) which generated $846 million, up 41%, while Janumet (sitagliptin plus metformin) brought in $350 million, a leap of 42%. Turnover from the HIV drug Isentress (raltegravir) reached $343 million, up 23%, while sales of Gardasil leapt 41% to $445 million, helped by its launch in Japan.

Sales of the cholesterol drugs Vytorin (ezetimibe plus simvastatin) and Zetia (ezetimibe) reached $469 million and $614 million, down 3% and up 8% respectively. Revenues from the antihypertensives Cozaar (losartan) and Hyzaar (losartan plus hydrochlorothiazide) fell 4% to $404 million, due to losing marketing exclusivity in the USA and the major European markets.

The anti-inflammatory Remicade (infliximab), the Johnson & Johnson drug which Merck sells outside the USA, contributed $561 million, down 15%, as a result of the change in marketing rights agreed with J&J for the drug and its follow-up Simponi (golimumab). The anti-allergy medication Nasonex/Asmanex (mometasone) brought in $266 million, a rise of 3%, while sales of the brain cancer drug Temodar (temozolomide) reached $223 million (-12%), down as a result of generic competition in Europe.

Confident Victrelis will compete with Incivek in hep C

One blot on the figures was the performance of Merck's new hepatitis C drug Victrelis (boceprevir), which had sales of $31 million. This is in stark contrast to Vertex's rival Incivek (telaprevir), which itself was launched in May, like Victrelis.

Third-quarter sales of the latter reached the stunning figure of $419.6 million, which suggests that Merck as lost the battle for market share already. However, on a conference call (the transcript for which is on Seeking Alpha), Adam Schechter, head of global human health, noted that Victrelis sales were hit by declines in US wholesale inventory levels following the launch last quarter.

He claimed that Victrelis' market share is "somewhere between 25% and 30%". Explaining the huge gap between the two products, Mr Schechter said a patient was started on Victrelis today and another on Incivek, "the competition would get the value over 12 weeks". Merck's drug "would get value 20 more weeks above those 12 weeks [because] the length of therapy with Victrelis is much longer" and "there is a slightly different price as well".

He concluded by saying that in Europe "where they're very price sensitive, we believe that Victrelis will also be in a very good position".