The campaigns are everywhere. On ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, Animal Planet, the Game Show Network and Syfy. In People, Popular Mechanics and Better Homes and Gardens magazines. On the radio and along subway lines. If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you could have hep C, screams Gilead Sciences, which makes the hep C drug Harvoni.
The campaign seeks to sound like a message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addressing public health. But the Hepatitis C “facts” resulting from an Internet search are paid searches from Pharma, not from public health agencies.
Is there new information that shows baby boomers are newly prone to Hep C? Why have we not heard from the “CDC” about this pressing public health threat until now? There is new information—sales information that Gilead Hep C drugs are “plummeting” and new markets are needed.
“Gilead’s hep C blockbusters are in freefall, and its pool of eligible patients has shrunk dramatically thanks to the success of its meds,” says FiercePharma. “If all baby boomers got tested for the virus, though? That could help stem the tide—and it’s exactly the move the company is recommending with its latest awareness push.” Just trying to help.
David Johnson, Gilead VP, U.S. sales and marketing for liver diseases, admits the shameless disease mongering.
“This has been a planned evolution of our disease awareness efforts, to reach a much broader audience once the pool of already diagnosed patients who often had advanced disease and were in need of curative therapy, had been treated,” he says. “This staged approach was also important to ensure healthcare providers were equipped to support patients asking to be tested, as even for primary care providers, this disease was not something that was high on their radar due to the lack of scientific advances in the past to treat the disease.”
Only a handful of drug classes have been advertised more aggressively than hep C drugs, reports Stat News—drugs for erectile dysfunction and psoriasis “that afflict far more patients in the United States” than hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C drugs weigh in at $1,000 a pill—$84,000 for a course of treatment—and have been sacking the taxpayer-funded budgets of state Medicaid programs. States have considered suing over the heisting of their dollars and a Senate committee has looked at the price gouging. “If Gilead’s approach is the future of how blockbuster drugs are launched in America, it’s going to cost billions and billions of dollars to treat just a fraction of patients in America,” said Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.
Congress is aware of the profiteering. The Senate’s Special Committee on Aging released a 130-page report revealing how “four pharmaceutical companies have taken advantage of our health care system to enrich themselves and their executives, harming patients and taxpayers,” according to the New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson.
The chairwoman of the committee, Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, and Claire McCaskill, a ranking member, Democrat from Missouri, say they have only begun to scratch the surface. They seek to “stop bad actors who are acquiring drugs that have been off-patent for decades and driving up their prices solely because they can,” they say.
Seeking to sell obscenely priced drugs paid for by the public’s dime to patients with no symptoms is bad enough. But the hep C meds are not even the wonder drugs they were billed as in the beginning. They were rolled out so fast to please Wall Street that Pharma did not know or care that patients with pre-existing, dormant hepatitis B infections could experience reactivation of the infections on the drugs and even die.
A year ago, the FDA found that 24 patients with pre-existing, dormant hepatitis B infections experienced reactivation of the infections while taking the hep C drugs. Two patients died and one required a liver transplant. The FDA promptly added boxed warnings on the hep C drug labels about the possible reactivation of hep B infections.
The Institute for Safe Medication Practices reported unintended liver effects with the aggressively marketed drugs. In one year, between June 2015 and June 2016, 165 people who took Sovaldi (an earlier drug) and Harvoni worldwide died, 524 had liver failure and 1,058 had severe liver injury. Could states have their money back?
Gilead’s unethical ads are halfway right. A terrible thing does happen if baby boomers don’t take its $1,000 a pill: Gilead makes no money.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.