Hepatitis C: behind new wonder drugs lies a terrible dilemma

There are 160m carriers of the hepatitis C virus across the world. Combined with the hepatitis B virus, which has 240m carriers, this causes 1.4m deaths every year.
Yet there are grounds for optimism around hepatitis C. Numerous pharmaceutical companies have recently brought to market new sets of “direct-acting antiviral” medicines to combat the infection. These have been shown to permanently clear the hepatitis C virus in 90% of patients in only a few short weeks, and with negligible adverse effects. It is not an overstatement to say that these antivirals have the potential to do for hepatitis C what oral vaccination did for polio.
But there is a fly in the ointment. The new drugs are unaffordable. Take the UK as an example, where around 214,000 people live with hepatitis C. Going by the indicated list price of £35,000 per treatment course, it would cost around £7.5 billion to treat every infected person. Even the staunchest hepatitis advocate would concede that since that approaches the entire NHS annual drug budget, treating everyone is not feasible in the short term.
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