An international group of treatment activists interrupted an afternoon session on July 24 at the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) just as Gregg H. Alton, the executive vice president of corporate and medical affairs for Gilead Sciences, was about to speak regarding the challenges of expanding global access to the new generation of hepatitis C (HCV) drugs.
Gilead has come under intense scrutiny for the price of its flagship HCV drug, sofosbuvir (Sovaldi). The drug's sticker price is US$1,000 per pill, equaling about US$84,000 for a full course of treatment. For some, two courses of treatment may be necessary, which would bring the cost of a HCV cure to about $168,000, and that's before factoring in the price of the other drugs that must be used in conjunction with sofosbuvir.
As Alton began to speak, activists approached the podium holding a model of a liver on a silver platter and began chanting various treatment access slogans, including: "Pills cost money, greed costs lives," "Shame, shame, shame," and "Pharma greed kills." They held signs depicting Alton's face with "Wanted: Crimes Against Access," "Hep C Criminal" and "Gilead Kills" emblazoned across them. As the activists entered, the sound systems blared the O'Jay's song "For the Love of Money" in the background.
According to Treatment Action Group, at least 150 million people worldwide are living with chronic HCV. Though it is curable, it kills about 500,000 people every year. In the U.S., HCV infection is common among people who inject drugs, people of color and the baby boomer generation.
While Alton (and Gilead) has defended sofosbuvir's price, claiming that treatment with sofosbuvir remains a cheaper alternative to a liver transplant, researchers from the University of Liverpool asserted that HCV drugs can be mass-produced generically at the price of just a few hundred dollars for an entire course of treatment. Also, Gilead has negotiated far lower prices with certain countries, most notably Egypt, due to what Gilead said was the extremely high percentage of people living with HCV living in that country.
Which may be why many activists remain unmoved. "Extortionate pricing will kill people, no matter what the illness -- HIV, hepatitis or cancer," said Edo Agustian, an Indonesian activist coinfected with HIV and HCV.
(All photos within this article were taken by Alissa Sadler, and have been posted here with permission.)
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.