Early hep C drug pricing spooks experts

New hepatitis C treatments from Merck and Johnson & Johnson are selling in France for $31,000 and up, and their price tags may end up limiting access to the high-tech drugs, especially in particularly price-sensitive markets, experts say.

The companies say their prices may drop once the drugs are approved more broadly. Right now, they're available in France under a program for seriously ill patients. J&J and Vertex Pharmaceuticals' telaprevir runs €22,000, or more than $31,000, while Merck's boceprevir costs €30,000, according to Bloomberg. "It's not a good indication of price elsewhere," Patrick Bergstedt, SVP for vaccines and infectious diseases at Merck, says in an interview.

But medical specialists aren't so sure, Bloomberg notes. The University of Palermo's Antonio Craxi worries the French precedent will end up tripling the cost of hepatitis C treatment for some patients--and that the UK, Russia and Eastern Europe will either delay use of the new meds or restrict patient access. Italy and Spain may also restrict use, he says.

"It may be that we can't use it at all until the price comes down," explains Mark Thursz of Imperial College London. "It's not the best economic environment to launch an expensive new drug." Both drugs are under review at European Medicines Agency and the FDA.

- see the Bloomberg story