A life-saving hepatitis C cure with an $84,000 price tag

A photo of a form in Chinese with the positive results of a child's hepatitis C test A Chinese child is diagnosed with hepatitis C

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Hepatitis C is one of the deadliest virus infections in the world, affecting more than 150 million people. The good news is a recently developed cure could save thousands of lives.

There's a catch, however. In the US, patients will be required to pay $84,000 (£49,000) for a 12-week treatment, which may limit the cure to only those who can afford it.

Without treatment, hepatitis C can induce chronic fatigue and fever, and eventually lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer or even death.

In the past, a patient with advanced hepatitis C would have had to endure long-term treatments with intense side effects. In some cases, a liver transplant would be necessary, costing nearly $600,000.

Sovaldi, the new oral hepatitis C cure produced by pharma giant Gilead, is much simpler and easier to administer than previous treatments, leading many to call it a "wonder drug".

Start Quote

It's remarkable that some large insurers have the chutzpah to complain that curing 3 million Americans of hepatitis C will bankrupt healthcare systems”

End Quote Peter J Pitts The New York Post

Many critics question why a drug as important as Sovaldi should have such a high price, however, raising questions on the ethics of pharmaceutical pricing. If Sovaldi can easily save lives, should its price remain low in order to have the greatest reach?

"This pricing, which Gilead attempts to justify as the cost of medical advancement, will have a tsunami effect across our entire healthcare system," writes Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, for CNN.

She calculates that if everyone with hepatitis C were treated with the new drug, at the current price the total cost would exceed $268b - more than what Americans spent on all prescription drugs in 2012.

"We cannot have sustainable medical innovation in America without prices that the health care system can sustain," says Ms Ignagni.

"Just think, could we have eradicated polio or smallpox if the treatments were priced like hepatitis C?" she asks.

Many, including the new drug's manufacturer, argue that the high cost of research and development justifies the high price tag. Critics counter that Gilead appears to be making enough to maybe reconsider its pricing strategy.

"Gilead, which had $2.3b (£1.35b) in sales for Sovaldi in its first full quarter alone, and the rest of the industry can well afford to show a little restraint," write the editors of USA Today.

"If they don't, they should expect more clamour for restraint to be imposed upon them."

Not all commentators agree that the treatment should be less expensive, however.

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At the end of the day, insurers and Medicaid agencies have the final trump card here”

End Quote Sarah Kliff Vox

"It's remarkable that some large insurers have the chutzpah to complain that curing three million Americans of hepatitis C will bankrupt healthcare systems," writes Peter J Pitts for the New York Post.

"New treatments are a bargain. Disease is always much more costly," he says, citing the high price of a liver transplant.

In the long run, Pitts says that unburdened innovation will lead to lower total costs.

"Breakthrough drugs could generate huge new savings in the US economy - but only if federal regulators don't smother them in the womb with expensive and unnecessary legal hurdles," he writes.

Pitts argues that permitting pharmaceutical companies to charge a hefty price for breakthrough treatments encourages them to tackle complex (and expensive) medical quandaries.

Following a surge of criticism of the drug's high price, the US Senate Finance Committee initiated an investigation into Sovaldi in early July.

In a letter to Gilead chief executive John Martin, the committee questioned why the drug's price "appears to be higher than expected given the costs of development and production and the steep discounts offered in other countries". For example, in Egypt, the cost of the new treatment is only $900.

Ultimately Sovaldi's price may only shift if pressure mounts within the insurance industry, who will have to bear most of the weight of the high price.

"At the end of the day, insurers and Medicaid agencies have the final trump card here," writes Sarah Kliff for Vox.

"They could put their foot down, deny coverage for the drug and let massive protests from patients' ensue. But they haven't done that. While many publicly oppose the high price, they have also decided it's something they need to offer patients. And, even though they don't like the high price for Sovaldi, at the end of the day, they're willing to pay for the value it provides."

(By Annie Waldman)


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  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    48. Dr_Dolphin "open primaries"

    It's very exciting and scary and exciting!

    50. Chris A,

    Since Obama is eternally pure, and barely existed, you might save your posts and just repeat them after he's left office when his innocence is obvious to us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    47. Why mention Obama? Had suggested he do everything possible to shred the Republicans when their Health Insurance shill, Joe Lieberman, killed the Obamacare public-option! Obama has been a non entity while Republicans are consistently criminal! Lame duck since 2010, the tea party finished Obama off - that said, the US Republicans remain the very worst people on the planet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I'd rather have Obama Care than the republican Don't Care bunch of war criminals! I do not have a vote so I judge by listening and looking. The republicans are ALL off their little heads and are the dumbest people I have EVER met! Yes I have traveled the world and worked in a heck of a lot of countries so I can judge what I see here! G W Bush is the worst president to date 100% (and his sheep)!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    to 47 mariein: Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity.

    This Nov. both Oregon and Colorado will vote on open primaries. If this trend sweeps the nation we could get rid of the crazies in both political parties. Right now extremists hold sway in selecting who the candidates can be. With open primaries it is the top two that get to run in the election, regardless of party affiliations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    44. Dr_Dolphin

    "Hey Chris A: Do you work for Obama?"

    Of course he does. Notice he doesn't mention Obama's name in his posts.


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