The “Hep C Cure” is Essential & Expensive!
The breakthrough in treating Hepatitis C over the past three years has been nothing short of amazing. Two new drugs, Harvoni and Sovaldi, have largely replaced the standard treatment of Interferon and its host of negative side effects.
What’s even more impressive are how effective these drugs are. Rather than “curing” approximately 50% of those treated, Harvoni and Sovaldi have success rates over 90%. They also have mild to nonexistent side effects.
So, it came as no surprise when the World Health Organization added both Harvoni and Sovaldi to their Essential Medicines List. With between 130 and 150 million people infected with Hepatitis C worldwide, these drugs are certainly essential!
In a statement to the press, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the following,
“When new effective medicine that could treat serious and widespread diseases appears on the market, it is necessary to ensure that everyone who needs the treatment can acquire it…Placing them on WHO Essential Medicines List is a first step in that direction” (The Standard Daily).
What is surprising, however, is the price tag of these blockbuster drugs. Find out more about the WHO’s Essential Medicines list below and, more importantly, why the much needed Harvoni and Sovaldi are so expensive.
What’s This List All About?
The World Health Organization’s Essential Medicines List is a sort of international standard used by governments to guide their national-level medical policy. In other words, it’s how various nations decide which medications and treatments should be used and at what scale.
The list is updated every two years. In addition to Harvoni and Sovaldi, this year’s update contained a handful of cancer drugs and some aimed at drug resistant tuberculosis.
Traditionally, the Essential Medicines List is divided into two sections, the core and complimentary lists. The core list is made up of the medications necessary for a basic health care system to function. The complimentary list is made up of medications that treat specific diseases.
Another standard of the WHO’s list is their focus on making sure all medicines included are inexpensive. They disregarded that qualification this year, in favor of adding drugs that have been proven to be remarkably effective.
This point brings us nicely to the ongoing dialogue around Harvoni and Sovaldi’s cost. Why do these literally essential medications cost so much?
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The “Hep C Cure” is Too Expensive!
Before we go any further, it’s probably time to lay out how much Harvoni and Sovaldi cost. Harvoni clocks in at between $80,000 and $100,000 for a full course of treatment (approximately twelve-weeks). Sovaldi is slightly more reasonable at between $63,000 and $90,000 for a full course of treatment.
Both medications usually come with insurance and manufacturer discounts, which drop the average cost a few thousand dollars. Still, with a price tag ranging from the high five to low six digits, most people can’t afford these drugs.
It’s easier to obtain them in developed countries where heath insurance will cover most of the cost. It isn’t guaranteed however. There’s been anecdotal evidence of insurance companies refusing patients’ treatment because it’s simply too expensive.
In the developing world, well, it’s a whole different story. The World Health Organization Assistant Director-General, Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, said, “While some efforts have been made to reduce their price for low-income countries, without uniform strategies to make these medicines more affordable globally the potential for public health gains will be reduced considerably” (NDTV).
How can Harvoni and Sovaldi be made less expensive and more available to those who need them most? How can these drugs be put into the hands of low-income peoples the world over? Well, Dr. Kieny believes adding both these drugs to the Essential Medicines List is a good first step. I can’t help but wonder what the next step is though.