NEW YORK -- After six months of anticipation, Neil Bodtman last week finally got what he wanted most from his arthritis doctor: a prescription for Celebrex.
"So far, so good," said Bodtman, five days after starting on the pill, the first major new arthritis drug in almost a decade.
Bodtman, 48, of Aberdeen, N.J., is one of thousands of arthritis patients who have asked their doctor for the new drug since it was introduced Jan. 18.
This pent-up demand has put Monsanto's Celebrex on track to be one of the biggest blockbuster drugs of the year, if not ever.
In its first three weeks on the market, about 142,000 prescriptions have been written for Celebrex, according to NDC Health Information Services, easily making it the second-fastest selling new drug after Pfizer's anti-impotence drug Viagra. The previous second-fastest selling new drug was the cholesterol treatment Lipitor, which is marketed by Pfizer and Warner-Lambert.
"This is an outstanding rollout," said Jack Lamberton, an analyst with HSBC Securities.
The strong early sales come despite little promotion from Monsanto, or its co-marketer Pfizer. The companies will officially launch the product nationwide next Monday, when they send several thousand sales representatives into doctors offices around the country. Soon after, they will begin advertising to physicians, and eventually directly to consumers.
Celebrex relieves pain only about as well as aspirin or other anti-inflammatory medications, but what sets the drug apart from other painkillers is that it is much less likely to cause severe stomach problems such bleeding ulcers, the company and doctors say.
Celebrex costs users about $2.50 a day, or about as much as comparable drugs on the market. Analysts expect sales of the drug to reach $1 billion this year and $4 billion annually by 2002.
For Monsanto, which last year broke off plans to merge with American Home Products, a consumer health products and drug giant, Celebrex's brisk sales could not have come at a better time.
After the Monsanto-AHP breakup, many on Wall Street speculated that Monsanto would not be able to prosper without finding a partner. Celebrex's success buys the company time, and makes it a considerably more attractive player, analysts say.
"Obviously were very pleased with the early prescription data on Celebrex," said Richard DeSchutter, chief executive officer of Monsanto's drug division, Searle. "We are getting more optimistic by the day."
But Monsanto still faces some stiff challenges if it wants to ride Celebrex into pharmaceutical sales history.
Merck, the world's largest drug company, is expected to get government approval for a similar arthritis drug by June. And Merck is hoping its Vioxx drug gets approval not just for arthritis pain, but as an overall painkiller.
Merck also wants to convince the Food and Drug Administration that its drug is superior to Celebrex, and thus not have to place any warning about gastrointestinal effects on its label. Monsanto is also working on persuading the FDA to revise its warning label and allow it to be marketed for fighting pain other than arthritis.
Meanwhile, Monsanto faces the obstacle of getting health insurers, which have become more stingy in paying for new drugs, to cover Celebrex. Aetna-U.S. Healthcare, one of the nation's largest managed-care plans, said it will cover the pill's cost only for patients that show an intolerance for other arthritis medications.
United HealthCare, another managed-care company, said if its members want it they have to pay more out of pocket for it. Both insurers say they have yet to complete scientific reviews of the drug.
Though Celebrex will increasingly be compared with Viagra for its fast start, Celebrex is likely to fare better over the long run, analysts say. That's because most users take Viagra only periodically. Arthritis patients take Celebrex and other drugs virtually every day, and often once they start on a pill, they take it for life.
Ed Sudol, of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., has taken medications for his rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years. He heard about Celebrex last week on television, and immediately asked his doctor if he could try it.
Though Sudol has suffered no stomach problems from the other anti-inflammatory drugs, he also takes an ulcer medication just in case. By taking Celebrex, Sudol said, he could stop taking the ulcer medication and feel more confident that he is not hurting his stomach to relieve his arthritis.
"Its all about quality of life," Sudol said. "I'm 53 and hopefully I'll be around to see 73."
Sudol's physician, Dr. Ted Fields, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, said many of his patients have already heard of Celebrex before he offers a free sample or prescription. "There's a huge pressure for it."