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(Adds analyst comment)
By Bill Berkrot
Jan 30 (Reuters) - AbbVie Inc's chief executive said on Friday the company's new oral hepatitis C treatment Viekira Pak has the potential to capture a "meaningful share" of the U.S. market, where it is competing against Gilead Sciences .
AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez told investors the company expects an annualized sales run rate of more than $3 billion by the end of 2015, which could grow as more countries begin using Viekira Pak.
"We expect it to remain a large and attractive opportunity for many years to come," Gonzalez said.
AbbVie shares fell 3.6 percent to $60.85 as investors were disappointed by the Viekira forecast.
"It was carefully worded in the most optimistic way possible," BMO analyst Alex Arfaei said. An exit rate of above $3 billion in 2015, "indicates that sales in 2015 will be below $3 billion."
With Merck expected to launch its rival treatment in 2016, he said, "we expect additional price competition in this market."
Some analysts have forecast annual Gilead hepatitis C sales in excess of $15 billion.
AbbVie and Gilead have been competing to nail down managed care contracts since Viekira Pak's December U.S. approval after Express Scripts Holding, the largest pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), negotiated a lower price from AbbVie and excluded Gilead's hepatitis treatments from its list of covered drugs.
Gilead came under intense criticism for the $84,000 cost of its Sovaldi hepatitis C treatment and more expensive Harvoni combination pill.
CVS Health, the second largest PBM, and the largest health insurers have since chosen Gilead's drugs for preferential coverage.
AbbVie said more than 40 percent of people who receive insurance coverage from a managed care company, such as CVS or Aetna, will have access to Viekira Pak, including 20 percent with exclusive coverage.
More than half of all U.S. managed care lives are now under contract, Gonzalez estimated. He said AbbVie was working on several contracts expected to be finalized within 30 days.
"Up to this point we are pleased with our formulary position and we believe we have the potential to capture meaningful share of the U.S. HCV market," he added.
Analysts have estimated that discounts offered for preferred drug status have exceeded 30 percent off list price. AbbVie declined to disclose details of its contracts.
"We priced and rebated consistent with the value of our product and what we thought was appropriate for the market," Gonzalez said.
He said AbbVie offered the greatest discounts to plans willing to allow Viekira access to patients regardless of severity of their liver damage.
The company said 1,100 Viekira prescriptions were written through Jan. 16. It reported $48 million in Viekira sales in December, largely from inventory stocking. (Additional reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Paul Simao and Phil Berlowitz)