When I went in for my annual physical in 2011, I knew something was up when the physician’s assistant who usually dealt with me deferred to the actual doctor. It was up to him to take on more serious issues, and as he soon explained, I had one. My blood work had come back showing I was infected with the hepatitis C virus. Hep C is a serious, life-threatening illness that attacks the liver and can result in fatty liver, cirrhotic liver and liver cancer. One out of five people carrying the hep C virus will die of liver disease within 20 years. And a lot of people have it—at least 3 million, and perhaps as many as 7 million, in the United States alone.
When I was diagnosed five years ago, there was no effective cure. The interferon-based treatments weren’t successful half the time, and the side effects were so debilitating few patients could endure the months-long punishing protocol. But hope was on the horizon. Pharmaceutical companies were working frantically to create new hep C drugs that were more effective, with fewer nasty side effects. Gilead Science was first out the gate, bringing the new hep C drugs Harvoni and Sovaldi to market in 2014 and 2015, respectively. And they worked great: More than 90 percent of patients taking the new drugs saw the hep C virus wiped out in three months, and without the side effects that made interferon treatments so intolerable.
But there was one big problem: Gilead wants $1,000 a pill for the 12-week treatment, or $84,000 for Harvoni and only slightly less for Sovaldi. In the United States, there is nothing stopping pharmaceutical companies from charging whatever they think the market will bear. Martin Skreli, the infamous “Pharma Bro,” may be the poster child for pharmaceutical price-gouging, but the executives at Gilead certainly deserve at least a (dis)honorable mention. Gilead has grown fat off of hep C drug profits, generating billions in sales each quarter and sitting on a $26 billion pile of cash at the end of last year, with hepatitis C sufferers, insurance companies and state Medicaid plains generating the wealth of Croesus for the company.