Last December, the FDA ushered in a new era in hepatitis C treatment when it approved Gilead Sciences' (NASDAQ:GILD) Sovaldi -- a nucleotide analog NS5B polymerase inhibitor that simply knocks-out hepatitis C cold.
In trials, 90% of patients treated with Gilead's Sovaldi achieved an effective cure, or sustained viral response, after 12 weeks. But its high cure rate isn't the drug's only remarkable advance. Sovaldi also does away with side-effect laden peginterferon in some patients; and when used in combination with Johnson & Johnson's Olysio or Bristol-Myers Daklinza, it can do away with both peginterferon and ribavirin in hepatitis C patients with genotype 1, the most common variant of the disease in both Europe and America.
The ability to cure the vast majority of patients is game-changing given that there are more than 9 million people in Europe and 3.2 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with the disease. But that innovation comes with a downside; an $84,000 price tag for 12 weeks of treatment. That's a jaw-dropping price in developed markets like the U.S., but it's a downright show-stopper for patients in developing nations like Africa.
As a result, human rights groups are clamoring for Gilead to follow the game plan it instituted for its significant, and highly successful, HIV drugs. Those HIV treatments, which include five therapies likely to hit billion dollar blockbuster sales status this year, are sold at premium prices in developed markets and cut-rate prices in key markets like Africa.
Help may be coming soon
Roughly 2% to 3% of the global population -- some 120 million to 170 million people -- is living with chronic hepatitis C and the vast majority of these people live in poverty-stricken nations with limited economic resources and healthcare access.
Hepatitis C is most prevalent in Central and East Asia and North Africa, but its particularly common in Africa, where the World Health Organization estimates 5.3% of the population is infected. In Egypt alone as many as 17% of the country's population has hepatitis C.
As a result, Egypt became the first country to negotiate a deal with Gilead for a low-cost supply of Sovaldi. In March, Gilead agreed to sell Egypt Sovaldi at a 99% discount to its U.S. price, or at a cost of roughly $900 for a 12-week treatment.
That's great news for millions of Egyptians and it may have set the stage for a wave of additional deals with other needy nations.
According to reports, Gilead is currently talking with a slate of generic manufacturers, including Mylan, about making and selling discount-priced Sovaldi in 80 markets including India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
Fool-worthy final thoughts
If Gilead reaches a deal with those generic manufacturers, it will offer new hope to millions of patients, but that doesn't mean that Gilead's investors should fret over cut-rate prices.
Gilead already has deals that similarly provide its HIV drugs to developing nations at a discount, yet those therapies still represented $9 billion in sales for the company last year. Since Gilead has a good chance at winning approval for a two-drug next generation version of Sovaldi soon, its likely that its pricing power here will be unaffected. And since any deal with a generic maker overseas will include protections to help curb diverting Sovaldi to high-priced markets like the U.S., its unlikely that sales will suffer. If that's the case, then this could prove a major win-win for both Gilead and patients.
Todd Campbell owns shares of Gilead Sciences. Todd owns E.B. Capital Markets, LLC. E.B. Capital's clients may or may not have positions in the companies mentioned. Todd owns Gundalow Advisors, LLC. Gundalow's clients do not have positions in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Gilead Sciences. The Motley Fool owns shares of Gilead Sciences. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.