A Balm In Gilead?

In 1953, the year I was born, my mother had plenty to worry about. A plague was killing the children. Those it didn’t kill, it paralyzed, condemning some to life in an iron lung, a cast iron horizontal tank just large enough to fit a human body, the head protruding out from one end – like spending one’s life in a sealed coffin, rising and falling pressure within the iron lung allowed the stricken patient to breathe. Luckier patients spent their lives in wheelchairs, never to walk again. There was no cure. The plague that put people into those devices: polio, a virus with an unknown route of transmission. The world’s most famous victim of polio: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, made an announcement: He had developed the first polio vaccine, saving untold numbers, worldwide, from death and disability.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Dr. Salk was his humility, his dedication to humanitarian ideals. Although he was hailed as a worker of miracles, he showed no interest in personal gain, but rather saw preserving and advancing the public health as a moral imperative. He could have earned millions from his success, but refused to patent his vaccine.

Fast-forward to the 1980’s. A company called Chiron (ironically, a maker of vaccines), in league with the CDC, identified the hepatitis C genome. Shortly thereafter, in a shocking move that forever changed the landscape of pharmaceutical research, Chiron patented the virus itself. Anyone wishing to conduct experiments on the virus were forced to buy licensing for research, then pay royalties to Chiron on sales of any new approved drugs. This limited the expensive work that needed to be done to develop a cure or vaccine for HCV infection. Nobody knows for certain how many hep C patients died waiting for the cure that has only recently appeared on the scene. How many will continue to die waiting for their insurances to approve them for treatment with new miracle drugs. Were Jonas Salk alive today, he’d likely ask Gilead Sciences, maker of Harvoni, “What do you mean, you’re charging people for this?”

The public health is no longer a moral imperative. It seems these days that our capitalist economic environment and medical morality are mutually exclusive. When asked to justify Harvoni retail pricing at $1,000 a pill, a representative of Gilead Sciences proclaimed, “We believe our pricing reflects the value of the drug.” In fact, Gilead says their drug is a bargain, claiming that paying the high price up front is better than paying far more for treatment of later complications of hepatitis C. How much can we save? Not much, not when insurances won’t pay for Harvoni until the patient moves into medical jeopardy. The results of their pricing have defeated their pricing rationale. If folks really could turn over in their graves, Jonas Salk is riding the rotisserie express.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The HepatitisC.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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