The Pill That Cures Hepatitis Costs $4, But if You Live in the US It’s $1000|
If you live in India and suffer from Hepatitis C, a new breakthrough treatment to cure the disease is available for $4 a pill. But if you live in America, the treatment is $1,000 a pill, or $84,000 to $94,000 for the entire 12-week treatment.
That’s because the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the patent for Gilead Science’s Sovaldi, giving the company a monopoly to charge whatever they wanted. Gilead also patented a drug called Harvoni, which is Sovaldi combined with inhibitors.
That’s a different approach from India, where Gilead must compete with other drug companies that produce an older and cheaper version of the drug. When generic brands enter the market, it typically drives down the costs of what would otherwise be expensive drugs. Last year, England’s taxpayer funded health system delayed approving the drug due the high cost. At the time, Gilead wanted to charge England $52,000 for the 12-week treatment.
Until recently, Hepatitis – a disease of the liver– has been difficult to treat, requiring patients to have weekly injections that have serious and often life-threatening side effects. About 130 million people globally have a chronic Hepatitis C infection, according to the World Health Organization.
In 2014, Gilead reported a total revenue of $24.9 billion, compared to the previous year’s $11.2 billion. But those profits may be on the back of another organization’s work. In February, Doctors of the World filed a patent challenge in Europe against Sovaldi, arguing that Gilead copied their publicly funded research that took place six years ago at Cardiff University and spiked the price after patenting it.
So how was Gilead able to get U.S. approval for its drug at such a high price amid controversy that the company copied someone else’s research?
The revolving door between big pharmaceutical companies and the Federal Food and Drug Administration could explain why. A few conflicts of interest in recent years include Dr. Daniel Fabricant, who left a senior position at the Natural Products Association, a natural supplement company, to head the FDA’s division of dietary supplement programs. Fabricant jumped back to the Natural Products Association in 2014.
Another example is Milton Packer, who chaired the Cardiovascular and Renal Drugs Advisory Committee. Packer is financed by Novartis and has been paid to speak by several drug companies over the years.
While solving the problem of revolving-door politics requires a total revamp of the existing campaign finance system, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has introduced legislation to stop drug companies from cornering patents on life-saving drugs, and gouging those who depend on them as a result.
Sanders’ bill would allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies to lower prescription drug prices for the first time in over a decade. It would also prevent drug companies from buying off competition to prevent the development of generic drugs that treat the same conditions and cost far less.
Sanders and the general public have been increasing their calls for reforms in the industry in recent times, as pharma pariah Martin Skhreli drew attention to the issue when he chose to hike the price of a drug used in AIDS treatment by over 5,000% after acquiring the patent rights. Skhreli was shortly after arrested on unrelated fraud charges.