After posting more disappointing sales for Qsymia, Vivus has succumbed to shareholder pressure and revealed it is in partnering talks with big pharma firms for the weight loss pill.

The US firm's financials for the first quarter revealed that Qsymia (phentermine/topiramate), the first new medication to be launched in the USA in 13 years for obesity, managed sales of just $4.1 million, below analyst estimates. Since US approval in July last year, uptake has been slow because the drug had only been sold through home delivery pharmacy.

However, last month the risk evaluation and mitigation strategy linked to approval was modified by the US Food and Drug Administration which will make Qsymia available through certified retail pharmacies. Chief executive Leland Wilson said this is "a significant achievement in our ongoing efforts to expand access to Qsymia," but observers have not been impressed.

Now Mr Wilson has revealed on a conference call that discussions have begun with "large pharmaceutical companies to explore how we can increase efforts with primary care physicians, which we believe is critical to maximising the value of Qsymia". The news, coming a day after Richard Fante, former head of AstraZeneca’s North American business was signed up as a senior advisor, went down well with investors and Vivus shares rose 9.7% to close at $13.21.

Too little, too late?

The pressure is still on however, not least because of the news earlier this week that Eisai and Arena Pharmaceuticals have been given the go-ahead to launch their anti-obesity drug Belviq (lorcaserin) in the USA from June. It was actually approved a year ago (and before Qsymia) but had been classified as a scheduled drug, ie its potential for abuse needed to be evaluated.

Commenting on the Vivus figures, which saw the firm's net loss rise from $18.8 million to $53.6 million, Simos Simeonidis, an analyst with Cowen & Co, claimed the Qsymia launch "has been a disappointment, to say the least". He noted that the company has spent $115 million in the last two quarters with just $6 million in revenue to show for that investment.

In an research note, Mr Simeonidis added that "given this stark reality, along with a number of other issues, including the inability to monetise [erectile dysfunction drug] Stendra (avanafil) a year after its launch, many investors may be looking for a change in the company's strategic direction".

The company's annual shareholder meeting will be held on July 15 and First Manhattan Co, Vivus' biggest stakeholder with a 9% holding, is proposing its own slate of six directors, aiming to replace the company's current board. Mr Simeonidis concluded by saying that "we would be surprised if we are not heading for significant changes at Vivus by July".