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Super Aspirin.

Faced with a quirky medical industry, Searle has come up with innovative ways of marketing its new pain reliever.

WHEN SEARLE DECIDED IN JANUARY 1998 to launch Celebrex, a chronic pain reliever, the U.S. pharmaceutical company had three things going for it: a revolutionary new drug, access to direct-to-consumer advertising to spread the word and a strategic marketing alliance with drug giant Pfizer to distribute it. The powerful mix produced the most successful product launch in U.S. pharmaceuticals history, ringing in US$1 billion in sales by October 1999 and surpassing the lofty heights set by the now legendary impotence drug, Viagra.

The pharmaceutical division of U.S. multinational Monsanto has since taken its global marketing platform to Latin America, where health authorities often take their queue from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, making regulatory hurdles less onerous. Celebrex has quickly spread south of the border with the most successful drug launch in Mexican history after Viagra, capturing 11.4% of the pain reliever market since being made available to consumers in March 1999.

The rest of Latin America has quickly followed suit, representing the bulk of 11 countries where the drug--which is targeted at arthritis sufferers--is now sold. The first drug to locate and inhibit enzymes that cause pain and inflammation without the accompanying gastrointestinal side effects of other pain relievers, the so-called "super aspirin" is known as Celebra in Brazil, where it has grabbed 10% of the market since April 1999. The drug has a similar position in Argentina and was most recently launched in Chile in September 1999.

"Searle is on a steep growth curve in Latin America, and teaming up with the larger Pfizer infrastructure is enabling us to springboard into the region," says David Quail, vice president of sales and marketing for Searle Asia, Latin America and Canada. "We're going from zero to sixty in a very short period of time."

Pfizer--recently boosted by its own blockbuster discovery, Viagra--acts as Celebrex' representative in countries like Chile and Peru, where Searle has no presence. However, Searle is making its own inroads into the region: In September, it established a commercial office in Colombia for the first time, adding to recent acquisitions of pharmaceutical companies in Brazil and Argentina.

Over-the-counter Rx. The strategic alliance with Pfizer has been like "an elastic band to Searle's slingshot," Quail says. But the two companies have nevertheless been forced to come up with innovative ways of marketing a prescription drug in a region where most tend to eschew doctors in favor of their neighborhood pharmacist.

A recent survey in Mexico by pollster Gallup found that 69% of those surveyed said the first time they tried a new medication, it was prescribed by their doctor. But an extraordinary 16% said they medicated themselves based on recommendations by family members, while 8% relied on their pharmacists to prescribe drugs. The problem is aggravated by prescription drugs being widely sold over the counter, according to Rafael Gual Cosio, executive director of the Mexican Association of Pharmaceutical Research Companies.

"If your comadre or compadre prescribed a drug for you, for sure you would go and buy it, even if you could afford a doctor and it's against the law," he says. "It's just like contraband or parking illegally--it's just something people do." Adds Roberto Rangel Peniche, president of Searle de Mexico: "There is a tremendous number of patients making buying decisions without consulting physicians and with no vehicle for obtaining information. The need for information is overwhelming and we're not able to deliver it."

In Mexico alone, 60% of an estimated 10 million arthritis sufferers go untreated. To get around the lack of awareness surrounding the condition, Searle and Pfizer have targeted patient advocacy groups around the region. In Mexico, they support patient group Manos Libres by providing technical information and funding and bringing in specialists from the United States to talk to patients and doctors about treatment. In Brazil, pharmaceutical companies have launched an arthritis awareness program in magazines and television in conjunction with the Arthritis Foundation in Brazil. And in Argentina, they sponsor a toll-free arthritis hotline.

The Internet will also be an important part of the strategy, company officials say. In Argentina, they have already introduced--with La Universidad de la Plata--a credit course via the Internet to teach medical students and general practitioners how to manage patients with arthritis.

The word is gradually getting out. Dr. Francisco Ramos, president of the Rheumatology Society of Mexico, says patients are increasingly hearing about Celebrex and asking their doctors about it. "Its success with patients who suffer severe side effects from other pain relievers is resounding," he says. "I believe it will slowly become the best option for arthritis sufferers."

But the quirks of Latin America's medical industry are not the only challenges to overcome. Patent protection is still a sensitive subject, particularly in countries like Argentina, where new legislation has been slow in coming. There are already four Celebrex knock-offs being sold on the Argentine market, while another two generic brands are available in Central America, according to Searle executives.

Still, the potential for growth in the region takes precedent. Before Brazil's devaluation last January, it represented the world's fifth-largest pharmaceutical market, Quail notes. "These are not second-tier markets," he says. "They will truly become our engines of growth." Now if they can just reach their customers.
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Publication:Latin Trade
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Previous Article:Attention, Central American Shoppers.
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