Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Hep C Drug Price Wars -- Now With An Appeal To Patriotism: Merck Vs. Gilead: The VA Edition

I do not want to appear unduly cynical here, but it seems likely that Merck is now actively amping up the public perception impact of its lower priced Hep C treatment, Zepatier® -- by applauding the health care provider arms of the US Department of Veterans' Affairs -- and, consequently (again, in part) by helping the agency find fault with Gilead's clearly higher Hep C drug pricing, in the US.

It is clearly true that the US VA health system (as of this afternoon) covers a vast swath of "would be" Hep C patients for Merck's new drug. That VA system is the single largest point of care provider for Hep C patients in the US. It is also true that Merck and Gilead are going at each other with hammers and tongs, in California federal District Court, in part about the price Gilead charges for its drugs (which Merck not entirely coincidentally claims infringe two Merck patents).

So at least in part, this Merck press release praising the VA -- and the subsequent Military Times article using it as fodder (largely to criticize Gilead's pricing) may be seen as Kenilworth's winning a battle -- for the all important veterans' "hearts and minds". From the Military Times article then -- a bit:

. . . .The person who led the scientific team that created [Gilead's] sofosbuvir, Raymond Schinazi, was a senior research career scientist who worked for the VA from the late 1980s until Feb. 1 of this year, when he retired. He requested his retirement on Jan. 21, the day he received an invitation to testify before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on his role in developing the medication and growing the company that profited from its sales.

The Food and Drug Administration in January approved a different medication, Zepatier, made by Merck, to treat the disease. In a release on Wednesday, Merck executives said they priced the medication "to broaden and accelerate access to treatment for patients covered in commercial or public plans, including our country’s veterans."

" This is a good example of how government and industry can work together toward a shared goal in the best interests of public health — particularly for our veterans who are so deserving," Merck chairman and CEO Kenneth Frazier said.

A Merck spokeswoman said it was too early to tell whether Zepatier will become the favored treatment within VA to treat hepatitis C but that the company priced it appropriately to ensure that it could be accessed by all veterans.

In a statement released by Merck, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson praised the company for its role treating veterans.

"We are grateful to Congress and to pharmaceutical leaders like Merck that are committed to our veterans who have nobly served our nation," Gibson said. . . .

Merck played this particular press cycle masterfully, it would seem. And I am not being cynical in saying that, as I do think Merck genuinely intends to "do right" by veterans with Hep C -- many of whom cannot afford the Gilead pricing (or, said another way, for whom the VA had previously determined that they weren't sick enough to warrant the price of Sovaldi). This may help Merck blunt some of the effect of that MedScape survey we earlier mentioned, too.

Now. . . sleep tight, to all of good will -- but especially to those who serve -- and put their lives on the line -- to defend us all. G'night, you active soldiers, and vets -- thank you.

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