Ever since Gilead's ($GILD) $1,000-per-day hepatitis C pill Sovaldi stormed the market late last year, the company has been under pressure from legislators, insurers, and patient advocacy groups to lower its price. Now doctors are weighing in on the debate, telling Reuters at a medical conference in London that the high price tags on Sovaldi--and competing products that are expected to be approved soon--are justified because the drugs will alleviate long-term complications of the disease, such as liver cirrhosis and transplants.
Sovaldi, an oral drug that boasts a 90% cure rate, faced its most recent attack earlier this week, when pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts ($ESRX) said it's forming a coalition that will refuse to use Sovaldi after rival products become available later this year. Analysts estimate Gilead's drug will hit $10 billion in sales this year, putting it on track to eventually surpass the best-selling drug in the world, Pfizer's ($PFE) Lipitor, which peaked at $12 billion. But Express Scripts' CMO Steven Miller told Bloomberg the $84,000 cost for a 12-week course of Sovaldi would "break the country."
At the European Association for the Study of the Liver conference in London, Gilead presented data showing a 94% cure rate for a two-drug combination pill containing Sovaldi that it's developing. Merck ($MRK), AbbVie ($ABBV) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) have also shown cure rates in excess of 90% for their experimental hep C drugs, which could present pricing competition for Sovaldi down the road, analysts say. But doctors at the meeting said governments and insurers should look at the big picture when it comes to price. "We spend at least this sort of money for cancer drugs, which only prolong patients' lives by a few weeks, and often with much worse side effects," said Mark Thurz, professor of hepatology at Imperial College in London, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) is stepping up to defend Gilead's pricing of Sovaldi. The debate over the pricing of new antiviral drugs has gone "askew," said PhRMA's president, John Castellani at a meeting in Washington, DC, according to Reuters. "The value to these patients, and to their loved ones and society--you can't put a price tag on it."
Still, the attacks on Gilead continue to mount. The World Health Organization spoke out this week on the need for affordable hepatitis C treatments, according to Reuters. In March, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman and several of his colleagues wrote a letter to Gilead CEO John Martin demanding answers as to why Sovaldi is so expensive. And some state Medicaid plans are refusing to cover it and other expensive hep C drugs until patients have already suffered liver damage.