There is new hope for those infected with the potentially deadly hepatitis C virus — but only for those who can afford it.
The FDA recently approved a combination pill — the first of its kind — to treat hepatitis C. The new drug appears to be very effective, with a cure rate of 94 percent in those who took it for a three-month period. For people with hard-to-treat hep C (such as those with cirrhosis), a six-month treatment was administered with a resultant cure rate of nearly 100 percent.
This would seem to be good news for the estimated 3.2 million Americans who suffer from the disease, except for one thing — the $94,500 cost of the treatment.
That’s not a typo. For the 90-day treatment, involving taking a once-daily pill, it costs patients $94,500 — more than $1,000 per pill.
It seems that, when Big Pharma actually manages to develop a drug that works well and has the potential to save many lives, there is always an exorbitant price tag to go along with it. And this new drug, called Harvoni, appears to have enormous potential not only for curing hep C completely but also in doing so without many of the uncomfortable side effects associated with existing treatments.
Up until now, the most effective treatments for hep C required supplementary doses of either interferon or ribavirin, both of which cause side effects including severe fatigue and flu-like symptoms.
Harvoni requires no supplemental drugs, and the side effects are mild compared to those associated with common currently administered treatments. Its cure rate is also far higher than that of previous treatments for the hep C virus — only about half of those who receive the older drugs could expect to be cured.
The new treatment appears to fall in the category of a true “miracle drug,” but why the high price tag?
Many will argue that the cost of developing and testing a new drug is very expensive, which of course is true, but let’s attempt to put things into perspective.
If the current price of the drug remains the same and only 1 million Americans are treated — roughly one-third of those with hep C — the resulting income for the drug’s manufacturers will be $94.5 billion.
It’s unlikely that it cost Gilead, the drug’s maker, anywhere near that amount to develop the drug and conduct clinical trials. And the $94.5 billion figure is based on the income from treating only one of three Americans who suffer from the disease.
Almost anyone with an ounce of compassion would likely argue that every person who has hep C should have access to the new drug. If it were available globally to everyone suffering from the disease (an estimated 130 -150 million people), the income from its sales at its current price would equal many trillions of dollars.
Whether or not insurance companies will cover the bills for treating average individual policyholders remains to be seen, but medical experts argue that the long-term cost of treating those who don’t receive a cure will be even higher than that of the new treatment.
However, it’s important to consider that, even if insurance companies are willing to pay for the outrageously expensive treatment, the cost will be passed on to the public in the form of either higher premiums or higher taxes, while the drug’s makers wallow in the obscene profits derived from its sales.
Meanwhile, Big Pharma is poised to rake in potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, while those who can’t afford the treatment are faced with the prospect of dying from a disease which now has a cure.