Foreign patients turn to India in search of cut-price cures

New Delhi:- When doctors told Australian Greg Jefferys he had Hepatitis C and the disease was destroying his liver, the devastating diagnosis was compounded by the cost of a cure.

 Unable to afford Sovaldi, hailed as a miracle drug, the 61-year-old flew to India, one of a growing army of patients seeking out low-cost, life-saving medicines on the subcontinent.

Their illnesses vary — Hepatitis C, cancer and HIV are among the most common — but they are almost always desperate, seeing in India their only hope to save their life or that of a loved one.

They contact underground “buyers clubs”, make the trip to India to buy from a legitimate distributor or seek out shady online pharmacies promising mail-order cures.

“The doctors told me ‘you’ve got Hepatitis C, you’ve probably got liver cancer’,” recalled Jefferys, a PhD student.

“The chatter was around the new generic versions of Sovaldi being released in India. I hopped on a plane to Chennai and in about two days I had an appointment with a specialist,” he said.

India earned a nickname as “the pharmacy to the developing world” for its tough stance on patents.

Successive governments have taken a view that patents should be granted only for major innovations, not updates to existing compounds — allowing domestic manufacturers to make generic versions of drugs at vastly lower cost.

Sovaldi, chemically known as sofosbuvir, is made by US pharmaceutical giant Gilead and costs $84,000 for a 12-week cycle of treatment in the United States.

Rejected for a patent in India, generic drug makers, some licensed by Gilead, produce versions such as Mylan’s MyHep, that cost less than $900 a cycle.

“This is something I observe more and more,” said Leena Menghaney, who runs Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Access Campaign in India, which works to broaden access to drugs.

“All kinds of people and patients across the world are starting to access medicines from India. They travel themselves, or they contact a friend,” she said.

More than 130 million people live with chronic Hepatitis C worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and 500,000 die each year from related liver diseases.

Since writing a blog, Jefferys receives 150 emails a day from people in the US, Britain and elsewhere asking for help.

“India’s production of these generic Hep. C drugs is saving thousands of lives a week.”

Source: AFP