Hepatitis C: A Silent, Deadly Disease: Treatment Beyond Reach of Most Indians

Every year, July 28 is remembered as the ‘World Hepatitis Day’. In India, this year too, the day had gone by virtually uneventful, for various reasons. This happened despite increasing trend of the disease in the country.

Though, there are five main hepatitis virus types, namely A, B, C, D and E, of which B and C are the most fatal, in this article, I shall focus mainly on hepatitis C.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally around 150 million people are infected with chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is considered as one of the key factors for liver cirrhosis, fibrosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. At least, 350,000 HCV infected people die annually from these ailments.

A July 2014 study conducted by Metropolis Healthcare reportedly found that 17.97 percent of 78,102 samples studied in major cities of India such as, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, were infected with HCV and the patients belonged to the age group of 20 to 30 years. Out of 10,534 the tested sample in the age group of 0 to 10 years, 3,254 samples (30.89 percent) tested positive with HCV.

Institutes of Medicine (IOM) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of the United States consider hepatitis C infections a “silent epidemic,” as many patients infected with HCV are symptom free, without even leaving any hint to them that they are infected. The infected persons may feel healthy, even when serious liver damage is taking place, sometimes through decades.

All these patients are also potential carriers of HCV, risking rapid spread of the virus, as identification of the infected individuals for remedial measures continue to remain mostly eluding in India.

According to experts, around 80 percent of the HCV patients ultimately develop chronic hepatitis with serious liver damage, causing significant debility. With further progression of the disease, around 20 percent of these patients could develop fatal liver cirrhosis and 5 percent may fall victim of liver cancer.

A situation like this, is indeed a cause of yet another major worry in the healthcare space of India. Deadly hepatitis C crisis would likely to worsen much, if it does not receive healthcare focus of all stakeholders, sooner.

Traditional treatment regime:

There is no vaccine developed for HCV, as yet. HCV usually spreads through sharing of needles, syringes or other equipment to inject drugs, infected blood transfusion and tattooing, among others.

The standard treatment for HCV is interferon-based injections, which could make patients feel ill and give rise to flulike symptoms. Moreover, the treatment with interferon lasts from six months to a year and cures only 40 to 50 of HCV infected patients.

Now, chronic HCV treatment also includes a combination of three drugs – ribavirin (RBV), pegylated interferon (PEG) and a protease inhibitor, such as, simeprevir or boceprevir or telaprevir. These three drug combinations inhibit viral replication for enhancing immune response of the body to hopefully eradicate the virus.

At times, patients with very advanced liver disease may not be able to tolerate this traditional treatment with interferon-based injections, as those could make them feel worse.

The latest development in treatment:

There has been a significant advance in the treatment of HCV patients today with a new drug in the form of tablet that has doubled the viral cure rates from 40 to 50 percent to 90 to 100 percent.

Moreover, the new drug not just enables the physicians switching from injectibles to oral tablet, but at the same time reduces the duration of treatment to just 12 weeks, instead of 6 months to one year, offering a huge advantage to patients suffering from HCV.

This new generation of treatment now includes only Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) of Gilead, which is the first drug approved to treat certain types of hepatitis C infection, without any compelling need to co-administer with interferon.

Some other global pharma majors, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck & Co, Johnson & Johnson and AbbVie are also developing oral treatment regimens for HCV. All these have shown equally dramatic results in clinical trials, reducing the requirement for debilitating interferon injections.

Allegation of profiteering:

Looking at the high cure rate of more than 90 per cent for much-distressed HCV infected patients, none would possibly dispute that Sovaldi of Gilead signifies a giant leap in the treatment of HCV. But Gilead, according to a ‘Financial Times (FT)’ report, faces strong criticism of alleged ‘profiteering’ for its pricing strategy of this drug.

Sovaldi has been priced by Gilead at Rs 60,000 (US$ 1,000) per tablet with a three-month course costing Rs1.8 Crore (US$ 84,000), when it reportedly costs around U$130 to manufacture a tablet. This treatment cost is being considered very high for many Americans and Europeans too.

“At the US price, Gilead will recoup its Sovaldi development investment  . . . in a single year and then stand to make extraordinary profits off the backs of US consumers, who will subsidize the drug for other patients around the globe”, the FT report states.

This line of argument has been gaining ground on Capitol Hill, as well. This month, two senior members of the US Senate Finance Committee wrote to John Martin, Gilead Chief Executive, asking him to justify Sovaldi’s price, the report mentioned.

Half yearly sales of US$ 5.8 billion came from just 9,000 patients:

Be that as it may, the bottom line is, in the midst of huge global concerns over alleged ‘profiteering’ with this exorbitantly priced HCV drug, Gilead has reportedly registered US$ 5.8 billion in sales for Sovaldi in the first half of 2014.

The company has reportedly noted on its earnings call that it believes 9,000 people have been cured of HCV so far with Sovaldi. This means that the 6-month turnover of Sovaldi of US$ 5.8 billion has come just from 9000 patients. If we take the total number of HCV infected patients at 150 million globally, this new drug has benefited just a minuscule fraction of less than one percent of the total number of patients, despite clocking mind-boggling turnover and profit.

Stakeholders’ pressure building up:

Coming under intense pressure from all possible corners, Gilead has reportedly announced that it has set a minimum threshold price of US$ 300 a bottle, enough for a month. With three months typically required for a full course and taking into account the currently approved combination with interferon, the total cost per patient would be about US$ 900 for a complete treatment against its usual price of US$ 84,000. The company would offer that price to at least 80 countries.

For this special price, Gilead reportedly has targeted mostly the world’s poorest nations, but also included some middle income ones such as Egypt, which has by far the highest prevalence of HCV in the world. In Egypt, about 10 million people remain chronically infected and 100,000 new infections occur each year, according to Egyptian government figures. However, independent surveys  put this number between 200,000 and 300,000. Gilead has already signed an agreement with the Egyptian government in early July 2014 and the drug would be available there in September 2014. This would make Egypt the first to have access to Sovaldi outside the US and the EU.

What about India?

Gilead has reportedly announced, “In line with the company’s past approach to its HIV medicines, the company will also offer to license production of this new drug to a number of rival low-cost Indian generic drug companies. They will be offered manufacturing knowhow and allowed to source and competitively price the product at whatever level they choose.”

This is indeed a welcoming news for the country and needs to be encouraged for expeditious implementation with support and co-operation from all concerned.

Regulatory requirement:

However, despite all good intent, Gilead says, “ Some countries, such as India and China, are not satisfied with the tests conducted in the US and elsewhere for Sovaldi. They want additional clinical trials to be conducted on their own patients as a precondition for authorization, which will add extra costs and delays.”

Patent status:

It is worth noting here that the Indian patent office has not even recognized Sovaldi’s patent for the domestic market.

Local measures to address chronic hepatitis:

On May 22, 2014, the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of viral hepatitis, in general. However, as things stand today in India, the surveillance systems for viral hepatitis are grossly inadequate and preventive measures are not universally implemented.

The Union Government of India has now expressed its intent to set up ten regional laboratories through the National Communicable Disease Centre (NCDC) for surveillance of viral hepatitis in the country. The key objective of these laboratories would be to ascertain the burden of viral hepatitis in India by 2017 and to provide lab support for investigating outbreaks.

Government sources indicate, the initial focus would be more on the preventive aspects rather than treatment of viral hepatitis given the limited health resources available. Setting up universal guidelines for immunization along with mass awareness and education have been considered as critical to fight this dreaded disease in the country. Simultaneously introduction of nucleic acid testing (NAT) and standardization of blood bank practices would be undertaken for preventing blood transfusions related viral hepatitis, in general.

Treatment for HCV is not widely available in the country. All types of HCV treatments, especially the newer and innovative ones, must be made available to all infected patients, as these drugs have high cure rates, short duration of treatment and minimal side effects.

Conclusion:

Viral hepatitis in general and hepatitis C in particular are becoming great national health concerns, as these contribute to significant morbidity and mortality, further adding to the national economic burden. India should just not strengthen its prevention strategies; it needs to focus on all the factors that influence speedy diagnosis and treatment of HCV.

As the WHO says, “New drugs have the potential to transform hepatitis C treatment, with safe and simple treatments resulting in cure rates of over 90 per cent”. The raging debate on Sovaldi needs to explore the newer avenues and measures for appropriately pricing the innovative medicines in the days ahead.

Concerned pharma players, the government and other stakeholders must work together and in unison to ensure that all those infected with HCV are diagnosed quickly and have access to life-saving treatments.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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