National / Science & Health

Health ministry approves new hepatitis C drug under insurance scheme

Kyodo

A health ministry panel has added a new highly effective, but expensive, hepatitis C virus drug to the national health insurance scheme, giving high hopes for patients who have had to endure painful interferon injections.

The tablet drug Harvoni, developed by U.S.-based Gilead Sciences Inc., is expected to revolutionize the treatment of patients with hepatitis C genotype 1, which accounts for about 70 percent of all hepatitis C patients in Japan.

A daily dose of one pill set at ¥80,171 will starting Monday be covered by the insurance, limiting the patient cost to about ¥20,000 a month.

The decision was made at a meeting of The Central Social Insurance Medical Council on Wednesday.

According to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, about 1.5 million people in Japan have hepatitis C, which is the leading cause of severe liver damage or inflammation of the liver. If progressed, it can lead to chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

The new treatment option is a response to several studies that have shown a poor response to the current treatment regimens using interferon injections, including side effects such as high fever, joint pain and depression.

As the interferon treatment requires an injection once a week for about six months, some patients have given up treatment due to fatigue or conflicts with their work schedule.

With Harvoni, patients take a pill once a day for 12 weeks. According to Gilead Sciences, symptoms have improved in all patients who took the new medication during a clinical trial.

The insurance coverage also applies to Sovaldi, another drug from Gilead Sciences, which has shown tremendous results in the treatment of genotype 2 hepatitis C. The drug was introduced into the Japanese market in May.

As genotype 2 hepatitis C accounts for about 30 percent of hepatitis C patients in Japan, the two types of new drug can cover all hepatitis C patients, according to Gilead Sciences.

During the Wednesday meeting, it is understood some experts objected to the cost, claiming the new drug was too expensive.

However, expecting that Harvoni’s high cure rate could help prevent and reduce the prevalence of liver cancer due to hepatitis C, the health ministry has estimated that the new treatment can reduce the cost of repetitive treatment, which would create long-term benefits.

“It’s a drug we’ve been waiting so long for,” said 55-year-old Atsuko Yonezawa, secretary-general of a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization supporting hepatitis C patients.

“Those who have give up the treatment are now full of hope,” said Yonezawa who has also suffered from hepatitis C.

Gilead Sciences expects the drug will be used by 18,000 patients in Japan in the next fiscal year generating sales of ¥119 billion.