Beverly J. Lybrand, Merck Vaccines

By now, you’ve probably heard the heated arguments for and against Merck’s introduction last year of Gardasil-the first, and so far only, vaccine that protects women against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a surprisingly common sexually transmitted disease that is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women. An April op-ed in the Detroit News, for instance, charged that the vaccine promotes promiscuity and “devalues personal morals.” Meanwhile, an editorial in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in March called Gardasil a “wonder drug” and marveled that it could possibly prevent a cancer.

The fact that people are still going to be talking about the vaccine for quite some time is a tribute to Merck and its lead Gardasil marketer, Beverly Lybrand.

While critics have questioned Merck’s role in the public health policy arena, few would argue with the stellar results that Lybrand’s overall marketing strategy has produced. From spearheading physician and professional medical group education to creating a consumer ad campaign featuring inspirational bracelets and stirring TV ads that struck a chord with the female population, her efforts have driven one of the most successful product launches from Big Pharma in recent memory.

For Lybrand, who serves as Merck’s vp/general manager of the HPV franchise, the motivation went beyond the imperative to boost the company’s bottom line. Rather, it was an opportunity for her team to make a public-health contribution of epic proportions.

“When we looked at the clinical data, it was very clear to me we had something that could bring tremendous value to women and drive significant benefit to the company,” she said. “We recognized the potential global health impact of the vaccine well before the launch.”

Thanks in large part to Lybrand’s efforts, that launch has turned heads well beyond the pharmaceutical industry. Gardasil, which made its U.S. debut in June 2006, generated $452.2 million in the first six months of 2007, with 54,000 prescriptions dispensed, per IMS Health, Plymouth Meeting, Pa. (total first-year sales were $628 million). Recently, Merck increased its year-end profit forecast based on higher net Q2 sales, up 12% to $6.1 billion, partly on the strength of Gardasil. At its current growth rate, Gardasil may well join the likes of Lipitor, Celebrex and Viagra as rarefied drug brands that have reached the $1 billion annual sales mark within their first two years.

“Merck found a way to open a dialogue between mothers and daughters on a difficult subject,” said Gary Stibel, partner at New England Consulting Group, Westport, Conn. “Considering the nature of the problem, they did a very good job of walking the tightrope.”

Not surprisingly, Wall Street, too, is enamored with the vaccine. Some analysts are predicting sales of the brand as high as $4 billion a year. For comparison’s sake, consider that only the top two brands in the $275 billion prescription drug category last year had higher sales: Pfizer’s Lipitor, with $8.6 billion, and Nexium’s AstraZeneca, with $5.1 billion. Gardasil isn’t nearly there yet, but it’s off to an excellent start.

“The success has been spectacular, though it might have been predicted,” said Anthony Butler, Ph.D, an analyst with Lehman Brothers, New York. “Remember, this is a vaccine that prevents cancer. That is a first.”

A PERSONAL CALLING

Lybrand, 50, has been with Merck since 1989. She began working on Gardasil in 2004, having made her mark on the Singulair launch back in 1998. A former healthcare employee who started out in nursing at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, she has a personal connection to her business. “My dad died of a heart attack at the age of 45. That’s when I became acutely aware of the importance of health,” she said. “There a lot of people in the industry who are provider-oriented, and they come here because they want to make a difference in people’s lives.”