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Our health segment today is spiced up with a little cinnamon. Turns out cinnamon may have health benefits - lowering your blood sugar, that story in just a few minutes. First, there's a new cure for hepatitis C, one with almost no side-effects. And that's good news for the over three million Americans infected with the deadly virus. But here's the catch: Treatment using this drug might cost tens of thousands of dollars per patient.
Here's NPR's Richard Knox.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: The new drug is named Sovaldi. And it's going to cost a thousand dollars a pill. Gregg Alton of Gilead Sciences, which makes Sovaldi, says the high price is fully justified.
GREGG ALTON: We didn't really say we want to charge a thousand dollars a pill. We're just looking at what we think was a fair price for the value that we're bringing into the health care system and to the patients.
KNOX: This and similar drugs could prevent millions of people from dying of liver cancer and cirrhosis, which hepatitis C causes. Patients typically will need to take a Sovaldi pill every day for 12 weeks. That adds up to $84,000.
Andrew Hill says that's too much, based on how much he figures it'll cost Gilead to produce the drug.
ANDREW HILL: Even when we were very conservative, the cost of a course of these treatments would be in the order of 100 to 250 dollars per person. And that drug is being sold in the U.S. for $84,000. Now, is that a fair profit?
KNOX: Hill, a drug researcher at Liverpool University in England, bases his estimate of the true cost of Sovaldi on similar anti-viral drugs used to treat the AIDS virus. Those cost about a dollar a gram to make.
HILL: The amazing thing with hep C is you only need a few grams of these drugs to cure the infection. You need 10 grams or 30 grams of drugs.
KNOX: There are some interesting parallels between the new hepatitis C drugs and those against HIV that came out 20 years ago. Both were very pricey at first. Both revolutionized treatment of lethal infections. But there are big differences. First, hepatitis C is actually a much bigger public health threat than HIV. More than four times as many people are infected with hepatitis C, both here and abroad.
Second, the new hepatitis C drugs can eliminate the virus completely. Once it's gone, you're cured. Drugs against HIV just suppress it, so they have to be taken for a lifetime.
Dr. Camilla Graham specializes in treating hepatitis C. She says maybe the high cost of the new treatments is OK.
CAMILLA GRAHAM: Maybe we decide that $100,000 is a worthwhile investment to cure someone of an otherwise devastating chronic infection.
KNOX: After all, it now can cost up to $300,000 to treat patients with advanced hepatitis C, using medicines that have harsh side effects and often don't work.
Another factor: The clock is ticking for people infected with hepatitis C, most of whom don't know it.
GRAHAM: So we have a very narrow window of time to find as many people as possible and to cure them as quickly as possible, if we want to make a substantial impact on their disease progression, as well as on those very expensive complications in the future. You have to treat them now.
KNOX: Graham, who's at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, notes that Gilead paid $11 billion to acquire a smaller company that developed Sovaldi. She thinks Gilead should be allowed to recoup that investment. But...
GRAHAM: You only need about 150,000 people to recover that cost. And so, you know, if you're treating two million people, once you've recovered your cost, then I think - I don't want to say it's unfair, but it does start feeling more exploitative.
KNOX: She thinks once Gilead has recovered its investment cost, it ought to cut the price of Sovaldi.
ALTON: That's very unlikely that we would do that. I appreciate that thought.
KNOX: Again, that's Gregg Alton of Gilead Sciences.
ALTON: Really you need to look at the big picture. Those who are bold and go out and innovate like this and take that risk, there needs to be more of a reward on that. Otherwise it would be very difficult for people to make that investment.
KNOX: Alton says Gilead will help U.S. patients pay for Sovaldi if they can't afford it and will charge far less for a course of the drug in places such as India, Pakistan, Egypt, and China, where most people with hepatitis C live.
ALTON: I don't think we'll be able to get it into the low hundreds. But I think we can get it into an affordable range for them. It'll be from the high hundreds to low thousands for these types of markets.
KNOX: It took more than 10 years before many people in developing countries got access to life-saving HIV drugs. Advocates hope it won't take anywhere near that long to start curing hepatitis C.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
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