Financial gain from Drug Users pain?

A few pharmaceutical companies are set to reap huge rewards from treatments and tests for hepatitis C. Grant McNally, from the UK Assembly on Hepatitis C looks at the fact that despite their still being no clear cure, this is not holding back phenomenal profit margins.

It is 15 years since the US biotech company Chiron Corp first identified the HCV virus, and engaged in certain dubious practices in an attempt to wholly own it and any spin off. In that time the virus has went through a metamorphosis, from a being believed to be a benign infection that was thought to have little consequence for long term health, to the serious global health concern it is now known as today. For their efforts Chiron Corp have benefited to the tune of a hundred million dollars or so in patent royalties payments (as I said , they even tried to patent the virus itself!).

The LA times recently reported that:

Chiron, (a Californian firm), has introduced a new policy for companies wishing to license its HCV patents. Chiron holds over 100 patents related to the HCV genome, which won’t expire until 2015. Any company that develops a new drug targeting hepatitis C (such as a protease inhibitor), or a diagnostic test to detect and measure HCV (viral load; tests for screening the blood supply), needs to license Chiron’s patents, typically by negotiating a licensing fee and royalties on product sales. Chiron typically charges each company millions of dollars in licensing fees during research and development alone, and makes millions more each year in royalties from HCV tests.

This went beyond the realms of ethical science and their were a number of litigations, before Chiron brought in their new policy which is tied to future sales, so potentially allowing them to make even more money for themselves.

This obviously annoys the companies presently at the forefront of treatment products, who are having to divert large chunks of their profits, but the fact is that it is not only the financial gains that upset’s people in the HCV field, but also, scientists have complained for years that Chiron Corp has hindered the fight against hepatitis by creating a virtual commercial monopoly over drug research.

Now, federal health officials are reviewing the 14-year-old government agreement that gave Chiron so much control over research that seeks to help the millions of people afflicted with the disease. It is this that has led to Chiron introducing the new royalty payment method reported above, a sort of buy now pay later.

Chiron currently hold 100 patents in 20 countries related to hepatitis C. Competitors had complained they’ had abandoned plans to enter the field because Chiron demanded too much money to access its technology. (Chiron successfully sued many companies for infringing its patents related to the virus).

Those patents credit Chiron scientists with discovering the hepatitis C virus — despite the fact that a scientist from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention contributed much to the original research.

But the CDC signed away to Chiron most of the commercial control of the virus for a little more than $2.2 million in 1990.

There are, however, now over 50 medications in clinical trials for potential use relating to hepatitis C. In 15 years hep C has moved from an insignificant virus, akin to EBV, to being a mass cash cow for the pharmaceutical industry. For instance if the UK prevalence was low, say 200,000 with viral RNA, then based on current statistical models around 60% could be eligible for treatment, which would work out at 120,000 at £6000 per 24 wk treatment cycle, would be £720,000,000. Their would obviously be drop outs, non responders, etc, however, if factoring a percentage that will require 48 weeks treatment, £720 million, would not be far of the mark. This is only considering the current available treatments of Peggylated Interferon Alfa and Ribavirin, which has less than 50% success rates! So in the UK alone this a multi million pound industry, and this is just treatment, the economic costs of lost working years, other hospital treatments for the disease and it’s many associated conditions, then there is the costs of benefits, mental health care and areas in drug rehabilitation failures I will address later.

Meantime there is still concern and tension between the U.S. patent system and free scientific inquiry.

The CDC now, for instance, claims ownership of the SARS virus and its entire genetic content after its researchers helped map the bug’s genome. Rather than try to profit from it, the CDC wants to prevent others from monopolizing the field the way Chiron does with hepatitis C.

It certainly raises some questions about the morality of so much profit at the expense of those affected, not that this is anything new.

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