TOKYO -- A new highly effective but extremely expensive hepatitis C drug will be granted insurance coverage in Japan, the health ministry decided here Wednesday.
Sovaldi, developed by U.S.-based Gilead Sciences, will start selling in Japan by the end of the month. The pills treat genotype-2 hepatitis C, which accounts for 20-30% of all cases in the country. In a 12-week clinical trial, 96% of patients that received a combination of Sovaldi and another drug saw the virus disappear.
An estimated 2 million Japanese are infected with the virus, which can lead to liver cancer. They are usually treated with interferon injections but that method is not always effective.
"It's good news that we will have an all-oral treatment," said Satoshi Mochida, a professor at Saitama Medical University. Many hepatitis C patients are older, so easy administration is a plus. Some also hope that Sovaldi can help in cases where interferons were ineffective.
But the drug's price tag could be a problem. The health ministry set the price of a daily dose at 61,799 yen ($511). The necessary 12-week regimen, together with co-administered treatments, could add up to roughly 5.5 million yen. In comparison, an interferon-based treatment program costs about 2.2 million yen to complete.
The Japanese government subsidizes hepatitis treatment. An expert panel convening on Monday is expected to discuss whether Sovaldi should be included in the scheme. If so, patients would pay at most 20,000 yen per month out of pocket. But assuming 500,000 patients opt for Sovaldi, the drug alone would cost the government over 2 trillion yen.
A daily dose of Sovaldi is priced at $1,200 in the U.S. and just above $600 in the U.K. and France. "The drug might seem very expensive, but that's not necessarily the case considering how much it costs to treat liver cancer," said professor Shunya Ikeda of the International University of Health and Welfare.