Free Hepatitis C treatment for all

  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 20 Mar 2018

SELAYANG: Government hospitals nationwide will be providing free Hepatitis C treatment to patients, says Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam.

The Health Minister said 2,000 Hepatitis C patients would be trea­ted this year after the drug sofosbuvir was made available to patients through compulsory licensing.

Twenty patients have been undergoing the anti-viral treatment course since it was rolled out more than two weeks ago.

“This is a long-awaited moment for patients,” he said during his visit to Hospital Selayang yesterday.

“We did not have an effective Heptatitis C treatment before and the ones available were expensive.

“Now, we are able to use a generic drug which can provide a cure and kill the virus,” he said, adding that the treatment had a cure rate of 95%.

The generic version of sofosbuvir is currently imported from Egypt, he said.

Dr Subramaniam said the 23,000 patients in the ministry’s Hepatitis C registry would be treated in stages.

It has been estimated that 400,000 Malaysians are infected with Hepatitis C.

“We are starting treatment with a small number and will increase it,” he said.

Dr Subramaniam said the ministry was also looking at more cost-effective testing so that it could carry out mass screening and provide treatment to more patients.

The access to the affordable medicine comes after the Government issued a compulsory licence (CL) to import or produce the generic version of sofosbuvir, one of the drug combinations used for Hepatitis C treatment.

The combination of sofosbuvir and daclatasvir is now being made available in stages at all 18 government hospitals nationwide.

(While sofosbuvir requires a CL, daclatasvir does not because the manufacturer did not apply for patent rights in Malaysia and the Government did not grant data exclusivity to it on public health grounds. Without the patent barrier, the Government is able to buy generic daclatasvir.)

Last July, The Star carried a front-page report highlighting the plight of about 400,000 Malaysians who have Hepatitis C.

However, only a fraction could afford the medication, which may cost up to RM300,000 for the full course of treatment.

Malaysia is not given special pricing for the drugs by pharmaceutical companies because it is considered a middle-income country.

NGOs lobbied the Government to issue a CL so patients could gain access to the medication.

In September, the Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism Ministry confirmed that the Cabinet had issued a government-use CL to enable the import of generic versions of sofosbuvir.

Dr Subramaniam said that in negotiations with the drug company offering sofosbuvir, the lowest price put forward was RM50,000.

After the failed negotiations, the Government initiated the CL and managed to get the cost down to RM1,000 a patient, which it will now bear.

Malaysia is the first country in the world to invoke the CL for importing or producing the generic version of sofosbuvir.

A CL is an authorisation that does not require the permission of the patent holder.

Under the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, countries have the right to issue such licences.

Asked why the Government decided to invoke the CL, Dr Subramaniam said the law allowed it for the greater good of public health.

“It is done purely for the interest of public health.

“We respect the need for patents but we are also holding to the principle that affordable medicines should be made available to those who need them,” he said.

He added that Hepatitis C was a big public health issue and if it was left untreated, patients would suffer scarring and even cancer of the liver; and it was an infectious disease that could spread to others.

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