The HIV epidemic has become more prevalent in recent years, but scientists have already discovered several drugs that could potentially help HIV positive individuals contain and mitigate the infection brought by the sexually-transmitted virus. However, the price of the drug in the US makes it near to impossible for unfortunate victims to afford. Thankfully, HIV victims now have an ally in the government, and she is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
On Thursday, AOC confronted the CEO of a company that distributes Truvada, the drug that is used to help HIV-positive individuals prevent infection, for selling it for nearly $2,000 when the same drug is sold in Australia for only $8.
“You’re the CEO of Gilead. Is it true that Gilead made $3 billion in profits from Truvada in 2018?” Ocasio-Cortez asked Gilead CEO, Daniel O’Day.
$3 billion in revenue,” he clarified.
“The current list price is $2,000 a month in the United States, correct?” she asked, referring to Truvada.
“It’s $1,780 in the United States,” O’Day responded.
“Why is it $8 in Australia?” Ocasio-Cortez countered.
Emtricitabine/tenofovir, sold under the brand name Truvada, among others, is a medication used to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS. It is a fixed-dose combination of two antiretroviral medications: tenofovir disoproxil and emtricitabine. For treatment, it is used either alone or together with other antiretroviral medication. While the drug can be used to prevent the transfer of the virus, it does not cure HIV/AIDS.
Emtricitabine/tenofovir was approved for medical use in the United States in 2004 and is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system. In the United States, the drug is sold for $1,780 while sold for meager price in other parts of the world.
As of 2014, the median cost per tablet, in Namibia and South Africa, was the US $0.20. In Canada, Truvada costs between $800 – $1,100 per month. Generic emtricitabine/tenofovir was approved by Health Canada in August 2017, with a wholesale cost of $400 per month.
The price of emtricitabine/tenofovir in the United States has been criticized by activists, who argued in a 2018 New York Times opinion piece that the high cost keeps the drug out of reach for millions, thus harming efforts to reduce new HIV infections.
“Truvada still has patent protection in the United States, and in the rest of the world it is generic,” O’Day explained, adding, “It will be generically available in the United States as of September 2020.”
According to the non-profit organization, Break The Patent, Truvada can reduce the risk of HIV by 99%, but Gilead Sciences has inflated the cost from $6 to more than $1,600 per month, despite the US taxpayer paying for almost the full cost of its development.
“The drug costs less than $6 a month to make, but Gilead charges patients more than $1,600 for a 30 day supply. This cost barrier has translated to less than 10% of the at-risk population currently taking the medication […} The truly infuriating part of that equation is that the drug manufacturer did not pay for the research that went into the development of the drug. YOU did. The US taxpayer, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), paid for almost all of the research that went into developing Truvada as PrEP,” reads the organization’s statement on their website.
The organization argues that the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 gives federal funding agencies the right to “March In” and ignore patent exclusivity should the holder fail to acknowledge “health or safety needs” of consumers by, for instance, engaging in price gouging, but until now, Gilead Sciences have been using the patent argument to justify their high prices for the drug.
AOC similarly slammed the company for selling the drug far more expensively in the US than in other countries even though people’s tax money funded the research for the development of the drug.
“I think it’s important here that we notice that we the public, we the people, developed this drug. We paid for this drug, we led and developed all the patents to create prep and then that patent has been privatized despite the fact that the patent is owned by the public, who refused to enforce it,” Ocasio-Cortez said.