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routine hepatitis C screening, which would start turning up a lot more positive tests. If it does, Emmens he predicts it could prompt another 1 million patients to seek treat treatment around 2014 and later, right as the most people in the initial wave of highly motivated patients go home having been cured.
“You have an estimated 2 million people out there who are not aware they are infected,” Emmens says. “Some don’t know, or just don’t give a damn, or have other problems, and won’t seek treatment. But if you found 1 million new patients over a two or three-year period, there’s a second tsunami.”
As for analysts predicting telaprevir will rise and fall, Emmens shook his head. “That’s absurd. I understand they’ve got to do their job. But from a marketing guy’s perspective, that just doesn’t happen unless you lose your patent,” Emmens says. “Docs use what works. Patients will come in, and they will want the highest chance they can get of a cure. That’s what they really care about.” A shorter treatment period, and more convenient twice-daily dosing instead of thrice-daily are a couple of other features Vertex is hoping to incorporate into hepatitis C treatment, he adds.
Vertex has clearly been spending a lot of time lately thinking about making its case to insurers. The trick will be to persuade insurers that it’s worth spending quite a bit of money upfront on a potent new drug to attack a dormant infection, as opposed to waiting to see if patients get sick years later and rack up big hospital bills. Emmens notes that liver transplants cost around $300,000, and, obviously, not everyone who wants a new liver actually survives long enough to get to the top of the waiting list. Vertex, citing an actuarial study it sponsored to try to measure the cost of future treatment, says medical costs in the U.S. for people with hepatitis C are expected to more than double, from $30 billion in 2009 to approximately $85 billion—presumably when factoring in a lot of liver transplants.
I must say I’m personally wary of drugmakers who use their money and influence to rewrite health guidelines that end up favoring their bottom line. Companies that want to sell more drugs for high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and obesity have been known to push for new health guidelines that classify many more people as “Suddenly Sick” as a couple of my former Seattle Times colleagues wrote in a terrific investigative story in 2005. Whether this aggressive new treatment is really beneficial to people’s health over the long run is often unknown.
This case strikes me as somewhat different, though, because today’s available hepatitis C treatment is really so poor. Vertex and Merck are essentially coming along with drugs that represent a big leap ahead with potential to cure hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people. It will probably cost taxpayers a few billion dollars a year for many years to come, and it’s always hard to say for sure how many billions you might save down the road when people don’t end up in the hospital getting liver transplants. But you can be sure Vertex is working hard behind the scenes right now to convince officials that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
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