May the best drug win. That's how Merck Chief Executive Ken Frazier views the competition to treat the as many as 150 million people worldwide with hepatitis C.
The pharma giant has a combination of drugs in late-stage trials that would provide patients with hepatitis C an option that doesn't require injections of medicines, including interferon, which can cause nasty side effects.
Merck's treatment received breakthrough therapy designation from the Food and Drug Administration, which aims to speed important drugs to market. However, medicines from Gilead Sciences, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and AbbVie have the same status.
So how will Merck compete?
"I think, over time, the best drug wins," Frazier said in an interview with CNBC at Merck Research Laboratories in Boston on Tuesday. "We think our combination's going to be a very formidable competitor. It's an all-oral, once-a-day pill, it doesn't have interferon, it works across many genotypes and it can be used for patients who have comorbidities."
Frazier didn't say that the way to compete is on price—a particularly important point now as Gilead's drug, Sovaldi, has become a lightning rod for criticism over drug pricing.
Sovaldi, which was approved in December 2013, costs $84,000 for a 12-week course of treatment, a price that's drawn scrutiny from health insurers, patient advocacy groups and Congress. The drug drew $2.27 billion in first-quarter revenue.