Controversy? What Controversy?

Gardasil -- Merck's new vaccine for HPV and cervical cancer -- has been a lightning rod for social controversy since it came to market in the second half of last year. Should Merck be lobbying state's to mandate it? Should parents be forced to have their pre-adolescent, presumably pre-sexually-active kids to get it? Who will pay for it? (It costs about $400 for all three shots which are given over several months.)

And now, how well does it work? Last week in a front page story, The Wall Street Journal raised questions about its efficacy. Well, today the numbers tell the story. Merck reported first-quarter Gardasil sales of $365 million dollars. That's more than double the fourth-quarter sales of $155 million.

That is what people in the industry call a very strong product launch. And it explains why the war has already begun between Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, which recently filed for FDA approval of its own vaccine called Cervarix.

This week, Merck announced it was asking the FDA to expand the label for Gardasil to indicate it also covers a couple of other HPV strains that can lead to cervical cancer. Hours later, GSK came out with new data showing Cervarix may cover additional strains as well, and that its tests show the vaccine works for at least 5-and-a-half years.

So far, Merck has similar data stretching out to five years. GSK could win FDA approval of Cervarix later this year. In the meantime, Merck is getting a huge head start.

Overall, its vaccine sales came in at just over $900 million in Q1. That's more than triple their contribution a year ago. The business is a big factor in the turnaround within Merck and its stock price. Vaccines are back in vogue.

Questions? Comments?