Increased funding good news for Hep-C sufferers

Hepatitis-C suffers may be able to access currently unavailable, highly effective medicine in the near future following increased funding from the Government. Last week the Government announced an increase of $50 million to the PHARMAC—New Zealand’s drug buying agency.

The announcement, made by Prime Minister John Key, Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman and PHARMAC Chief Executive Steffan Crausaz, was accompanied by the suggestion that the budget increase will allow the funding of a number of drugs under consideration. The new budget allocation will open the door for PHARMAC to potentially fund Hepatitis-C medications such as Harvoni or Viekira Pak —both of which have had an extremely high cure rate in patients. 

Hepatitis-C sufferers in New Zealand currently only have access to Pegylated Interferon and Ribavirin, drugs which are both considered as marginally effective, or ineffective in patients with late-stage liver disease. 

The announcement follows the imminent closure of a Dunedin Hepatitis-C clinic which helps to facilities patients into an Australian buyer’s club which provides access to cheaper, generic versions of the pharmaceuticals such as sofosbuvir, lepdispavir and declatasvir, all currently unfunded by PHARMAC. The patent for the drug Harvoni, which is a combination of lepdispavir and sofosbuvir, is owned by American biopharmaceutical company, Gilead Science. The drug currently can cost up to US $84,000 for a 12-week regime.

The buyer’s club operating in Australia is run out of an online general practitioner’s clinic called GP2U by Dr James Freeman, who says the purpose of the service is to provide Hepatitis-C sufferers with the necessary medication at an affordable price, by exploiting a loophole whereby the drugs are sourced through countries where pharmaceutical patents are not recognised.

“In essence we looked at the legal landscape and said Gilead [Sciences] is using monopoly power to demand high prices. Rather than get mad we looked for loopholes to allow patients to get even.”

“The [buyer’s] club simply assists the patient in having a medical consultation with a doctor in India, who writes a local script, which is then used to source medications within the licence territory (India) which then conveniently falls into a FedEx box exiting India on the Indian prescription and entering NZ on the New Zealand prescription,” says Dr Freeman.

In response to an inquiry made by Critic last month, PHARMAC were unable to confirm the status of negotiations with potential supplier Gilead Sciences due to “commercial sensitivity”. However, the Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee (PTAC) —the official advisory committee to PHARMAC— meeting minutes from May 2015 shows Harvoni as recommended for purchase.

In response to the announcement of increased government funding, PHARMAC has confirmed its consideration for Harvoni and Viekira Pak.

“On the back of the Government’s funding announcement last week, PHARMAC announced that it has opened consultations on seven new treatments across a wide range of health areas, including hepatitis C.”

“The proposed hepatitis C treatments include Harvoni and Viekira Pak,” says a spokesperson for PHARMAC. 

This article first appeared in Issue 11, 2016.
Posted 10:49am Sunday 15th May 2016 by Henry Napier.