Push for liver cure for SA

21 January 2015 - 02:13 By Katharine Child
Image: wikimedia commons

A life-saving drug that offers the best treatment for hepatitis C is unavailable in South Africa and carries an exorbitant price tag in wealthier nations such as the US.

Gilead Sciences manufactures Solvaldi, termed a miracle drug because it substantially cuts the time needed to cure hepatitis C.

Médecins Sans Frontières and the Treatment Action Campaign are lobbying to get the drug, or a generic, to South Africa.

They want the government either to negotiate with Gilead Sciences to register Solvaldi in South Africa and offer it at a discounted price, or to use a loophole in the law to import cheaper generics, which were recently approved for manufacture in India.

Hundreds of thousands of South Africans have hepatitis C, a viral liver disease spread through blood or sexual fluids.

It kills slowly, with many unaware they have the disease.

The existing treatment takes 48 weeks, has many side effects and is not always effective.

Solvaldi works in just 12 weeks.

But it is protected by patents in South Africa until 2034, even though it is not available here yet.

And it costs $1000 a pill in the US, with a typical course of treatment costing almost $100000 (more than R1.1-million), putting it way out of the reach of most people.

But the treatment is expected to become available at a much cheaper price in India.

Solvaldi was not patented in India at the same time as in many other countries, 2002, because in terms of international trade law, India had to introduce medicine patents only in 2005 as it was a developing poorer country. Gilead patented the drug there after 2005 but this secondary patent was dismissed last week by the Indian Patent Office.

Generic companies in India can now make the drug. Some claim they can do so for a fraction of the cost in the US, according to Médecins Sans Frontières' access advocacy officer Julia Hill.

Hill said South Africa could use international trade law to import generic Solvaldi at cheap Indian prices.

International trade treaties allow countries to import generics when the life-saving original is too expensive, in a move called compulsory licensing. South Africa did this with the first antiretrovirals imported.