New Hepatitis C Drugs Offering Quick Cure but a High Price Tag

Last week, a series of clinical trial results were released showing complete eradication of the hepatitis C virus from 440 patients. The new drugs, sofosbuvir and ledipasvir, are being hailed as a “triumph of modern medical technology,” but the steep price tag means treatment will only reach a handful of patients who could benefit from the medication.

hepatitis c

Hepatitis C is an infection that attacks the liver leading to inflammation. This chronic disease can be contracted through:

  • Drug use with an IV needle – particularly if the needle is shared
  • Unprotected sex with someone who has the disease
  • Blood from infected person coming in contact with healthy blood of another (cut, or eyes/nose/mouth)

Results were published by the New England Journal of Medicine, reporting that the cocktail of sofosbuvir and lediapasvir, given once daily in tablet form, resulted in a, “high rate of sustained virologic response,” meaning the infection has permanently cleared. Long term monitoring of the patients involved in the study will be ongoing to determine if the disease will remain cured.

Since the hepatitis C virus was identified by scientists 25 years ago, this is the first treatment that doctors are excited about offering to the 3 million Americans currently living with the disease. Unfortunately, very few will be able to afford the $1,000 per pill price tag, resulting in roughly $84,000 for a 12 week treatment regimen. Gilead Sciences Inc., maker of the drug Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), stands to make 19 billion (with a B) dollars over the next three years solely from Sovaldi revenue.

The pharmaceutical giant has come under fire for the high cost, and they were even asked to lower the price in order to give moderate and low income families a shot at paying for drug. Gilead refused saying the drug was well worth the money because of its swift action (sometimes curing the patient in as little as 12 weeks) and low report of side effects. The New England Journal reports that some patients experienced fatigue, headache and nausea during the study, but none stopped taking the medicine because of it.

Before the approval of Sovaldi, the most common treatment for hepatitis C was a combination of interferon and ribavirin, injectable medication that had to be given over a 48 week period and resulted in serious side effects including rash, anemia and debilitating headaches.

Hepatitis C patients are instructed to contact their insurance companies to see whether they qualify for help with the drug, though experts are already predicting that assistance will only come for those who have already developed cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and are headed for liver transplant.