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Soaring Drug Prices Could Bar Access To Future Coronavirus Treatments

Research shows drugs such as sofosbuvir, used to treat hepatitis C, costs $5 to make but sells for $18,610 in the US

Existing drugs may help us get through the coronavirus pandemic while we wait for a vaccine, but high pricing by pharmaceutical companies will probably mean that, even if these drugs are proven to be effective, many sick people will still be prevented from getting treatment.

study published this month in the Journal of Virus Eradication looked at nine of the drugs that have been identified as possible Covid-19 treatments and are in various stages of clinical trials globally. The team of researchers looked at how much each of the drugs is sold for in countries where data was available. Then they calculated what a generic version of these drugs might cost.

For example, a course of sofosbuvir (a drug currently used to treat hepatitis C) costs around $5 to make but the current list price in the US is $18,610.

Pirfenidone, a drug used for lung fibrosis, costs around $31 for a 28-day treatment course. In the US, a course is priced at $9,606, or $6,513 if patients are able to access it through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Though the US tops the list, the list price of this drug is still expensive elsewhere – a course costs $2,561 in the UK and $2,344 in France.

Pharmaceutical companies often defend their pricing by claiming that their costs are incredibly high. However, when calculating the price of a generic version of the drug, the researchers factored in export costs, taxes and even a 10% profit margin.

In some cases, pharmaceutical companies have minimized their costs by receiving government subsidies. Take remdesivir, a drug which has been touted by the US government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, a claim later tempered in the British Medical Journal, where researchers expressed the need for caution about the drug’s efficacy.

Gilead Sciences, the company that makes remdesivir, benefited from at least $79m in US government funding. Despite the fact that US taxpayers have helped to develop the drug, Gilead announced it would no longer provide emergency access to it. Then, after widespread criticism, the company announced this week it would donate its entire stockpile of the drug to government.

In late March, the Food and Drug Administration gave Gilead “orphan” drug status, meaning the company has the right to profit exclusively for seven years from the sale of remdesivir. Normally, this drug status is reserved for treating rare diseases, not ones such as as Covid-19, for which more than 1 million people in the US have tested positive (and many more have been infected but not tested).

Gilead, which made $5bn in profit last year, has close ties to the US administration. Between 2011 and 2017, Joe Grogan lobbied for Gilead. He now serves on the White House coronavirus taskforce.

Speaking on the phone after a shift at a London hospital, one of the study’s authors, Dr Jacob Levi, explained: “There has been a long history of big pharmaceutical companies charging unnecessary and unwarranted high prices for medications, even if they actually spent very little on research and development for that medication.”

Levi added: “That’s been extremely common with infectious disease medications in the past, like hepatitis and HIV, and we can’t let it happen with medications for Covid-19. Otherwise, hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths would occur and healthcare inequality amongst the poor will worsen.”


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