Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

Offering Hope to Millions: A New Hepatitis Drug

Amidst all the recurring tragedies of the COVID-19’s pandemic, a breakthrough discovery in the health sector is always a cause for celebration. For years, hepatitis disease has infected millions of people around the globe, and science was barely able to give the patients a tangible sentiment of hope. However, the new lifesaving Mellesyan drug is now offering millions an accessible, effective, and affordable treatment. 

Hepatitis C

The Hepatitis virus is a disease infecting almost 71 million people from all around the world, though it is mainly dominant in Africa. This silent virus starts by attacking the liver, causing fatal liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and cancer. Thus, the virus reaps the lives of almost 1.4 million patients annually. 

Since the virus is bloodborne, most infections are spread via blood exposure means, including the sharing of injection equipment, reuse or inadequate sterilization of medical equipment, transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products, or sexual practices that can lead to blood exposure.

History of treatments

Despite its severeness, scientists were unsuccessful in discovering a vaccine. Thus, in the past two decades, doctors relied on a combination of drugs to treat this illness. Yet, not only does that treatment rely on weekly injections, but it also causes adverse side effects, which can continue prevailing even after the end of the treatment. Further, reports prove that this treatment was only able to help between 40% and 65% of the infected populace. 

As the years passed, scientists developed direct-acting antivirals to combat this illness. However, even though it succeeded in curing the disease at a very high rate, it remained inaccessible to most patients because of its expensiveness. 

“Hepatitis C medicines have always been very expensive in the Western Pacific region because we have only high- and middle-income countries, as categorized by the World Bank,” explained Dr. Po-Lin Chan, the WHO’s medical officer for viral hepatitis.

A new, affordable drug

2021 marks a revolutionary event in the health sector, as Malaysia registers the world’s first affordable and effective Hepatitis drug. “We decided to work with middle-income countries to try to develop an effective treatment,” declared Jean-Michel Piedagnel, director of DNDi Southeast Asia. “We started the clinical trial in Malaysia and Thailand saying we are also going to put on the market an affordable treatment.”

Thus, with the aid of Egyptian drugmaker, Pharco Pharmaceuticals, the non-profit organization is bringing the combined treatment of two hepatitis C tablets, Ravidasvir ­­and Sofosbuvir, to the public. Not only did DNDi report that this treatment has a success rate of 97%, but it is also very affordable in comparison to the other drugs.

While the alternative drugs used to cost up to $84,000 per treatment, the Malaysian drugs will cost almost $300. Moreover, the treatment will span over the course of 12 weeks, making the cost of the treatment $3.50 per day. 

Between patents and international laws

Perhaps one of the main reasons Malaysia was able to achieve this admirable result is the ongoing pandemic. Through legal conditions of the clinical trial, Malaysia took a controversial step and bought Sofosbuvir at an affordable price via Egypt. Then in 2017, the country issued a compulsory license for sofosbuvir, allowing the import of the drug to the country. A decision that was deemed risky at the time.

“In international law, if the product is patented, and a country wants to use that product for public non-commercial use, if it’s a situation of urgency, then there is no need to go and negotiate first with the patent holder,” said Chee Yoke Ling, an international lawyer and executive director of Third World Network, a Malaysian research and advocacy organization. “In Malaysia, our laws implement that as the rights of the government.”

“What happened in Malaysia provides a useful example for other countries. There could be an opportunity to advance the reduction of intellectual property provisions that don’t benefit countries as there’s a shift in how these superpowers are thinking about intellectual property. For example, the US endorsing the TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 technologies,” said Fifa Rahman, who ran hepatitis C advocacy efforts at the Malaysian AIDS Council in 2016 and is now working on the ACT-Accelerator for the global COVID-19 response.

Al Jazeera. (2021, July 28). Affordable hepatitis drug offers new hope to millions. Health News | Al Jazeera. C in Malaysia: From crisis to hope. (2020, July 28). WHO., J. (2020, October 15). Non-profit’s $300 hepatitis C cure as effective as $84,000 alternative. The Guardian., J. (2021, May 2). New drugs work against the many strains of hepatitis C found in African countries. The Conversation.