Health Ministry: More than 100,000 Egyptians applied for ‘miracle’ hepatitis C drug

More than 100,000 Egyptians have requested the newly available hepatitis C drug Sovaldi through a governmental website that was launched on Thursday, of whom 32,000 have already received a response, Taeq Saad, head of the website’s administration, told the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY) on Friday.

Patients can currently request the drug online at www.nccvh.org.eg, and as of Sunday will be able to do so through the hotline number 19153, Health Minister Adel al-Adawy announced in a press conference.

Manufactured by the US-based pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Sovaldi was highly anticipated as a miracle drug with the ability to cure up to 90 percent of hepatitis C patients within three months. However, the medical community was outraged when it hit the market in early 2014 with a US$1,000-a-day price tag, though the cost of producing one tablet is less than US$2. The drug has been made available more cheaply in other countries, though Gildead has been aggressively negotiating to maintain control of the drug’s patent and pricing abroad.

Adawy promised that the Health Ministry would respond to all requests within 24 hours of receipt, and confirmed that distribution of the drug would not be based on the order of registration, but rather, “the advancement of the disease will be the only basis for selection to receive treatment.”

Six percent of those who have submitted requests so far are reportedly Egyptian expatriates living in India, Saudi Arabia, Netherlands, Germany and Oman. However, expats will have to return to Egypt for the treatment “to preserve patients’ rights and prevent smuggling,” the minister said.

Patients selected for treatment through the state-sponsored program can print a watermarked registration form from the official website to receive a free initial examination. In addition, the government will subsidize the cost of treatment for patients without health insurance.

According to the Health Ministry, there will be a separate waiting list for patients who can pay for the drug on their own, though the priority for receiving the treatment would still be based on the severity of their condition.

The drug has not yet been made available for direct trading in public pharmacies.

In March, Egypt reached an agreement to import Sovaldi at a reduced cost which comes to only 1 percent of its international price. The six-month treatment plan will cost LE13,000 (US$1,900) per patient, instead of the international rate of more than LE1 million. The ministry touted the deal as a success, but critics point out that the monthly cost of roughly LE2,000, or US$300, equates to the average monthly income for Egyptian families and remains out of reach for much of the population.

During a visit to the Damietta Public Hospital on Monday, Adawy said that the Solvadi treatment program would launch in mid-October at eight health care facilities, and would ultimate expand to 26 medical centers. Egypt has reportedly imported 26,225 doses of the drug, enough to treat 70,000 patients in the program’s initial phase.

Patients will be referred to treatment centers based on the address on their national identification cards. All patients enrolled in the program must have a follow-up examination one month after the first visit, another check-up at the three-month mark and a final exam after six months.

The official website instructed accepted patients to bring a valid ID card, blood test results from the last three months, and the results of an abdominal ultrasound performed within the last six months to the first appointment.

Egypt is facing catastrophe in hepatitis C prevention, Adawy warned in a meeting with the National Committee for Hepatic Viruses and representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday.

“We shouldn’t be hiding our heads in the sand, and we have to fight the disease using unconventional methods, especially since Egypt has the highest infection rates in the world,” the minister argued.

Egypt has a higher prevalence of hepatitis C than any other country, according to the WHO, with an infection rate of 10-14 percent, or 8 to 10 million people. Approximately 1.5 million of those infected are in need of treatment, mostly in the Nile Delta region.

A national preventative plan is purportedly being drafted to face the spread of the disease. A designated committee is attempting to increase the efficiency of infection control units in hospitals and ministry facilities, and establish readily available infection control units in operating rooms, blood banks, dentist offices and dialysis units.

The preventative plan working in tandem with the new treatment could eradicate hepatitis C in Egypt within five to eight years, Adawy speculated.

However, the Pharmacists Syndicate does not share Adawy’s optimism, and has called on the Health Ministry to issue an exceptional decision to regulate the price of all hepatitis C medications, especially Sovaldi.

The demand would encourage competition between pharmaceutical companies, thus increasing production and lowering prices, argued syndicate board member Haitham Abdel Aziz.

Abdel Aziz warned that the ministry’s efforts to treat 50,000 patients a year could prove futile when up to 12 million Egyptians are infected with Heptatis C. Furthermore, most patients fall under the poverty line and will have difficulty accessing treatment, while infection rates could be as high as 100,000 new cases per year, Abdel Aziz told AMAY.

Without a pricing mechanism that would give at least half a million patients access to Sovaldi each year, “we’ll be digging in the sea,” Abdel Aziz cautioned.

Indian companies have contracted with Gilead Sciences to obtain the rights to manufacture and export the medicine to 91 countries, Abdel Aziz pointed out, “while the Egyptian Health Ministry believes that importing 200,000 doses is an achievement.”

The government had earlier moved to reject Gilead’s patent on the drug, and Adawy said that Egypt is currently planning to begin manufacturing the the medicine locally. However, Gilead has not authorized Egypt to produce Sovaldi under a voluntary license, nor to import the treatment more cheaply from India.

This is not the first time the government promised to cure Egypt of the virus. Earlier this year, the Armed Forces claimed to have found a scientific solution to cure HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C.

The so-called cure uses electromagnetism to destroy the viruses. The tool also allegedly diagnoses both diseases from a distance with a high level of accuracy. The invention includes a diagnosis component called C-Fast, which the army began researching three years ago, as well as a treatment dubbed Complete Cure.

The announcement of the highly controversial treatment was met with both great hype and great derision in local media. It was initially scheduled to launch on June 30, and then to be introduced to hospitals in early July, but has now been delayed by six months to a year for further testing, according to the military.

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