Drugmakers partner with England’s NHS in $1.3B hepatitis C push

NHS said it hopes to make England the first country to eliminate HCV. The effort will involve finding people living with the virus and providing drugs procured from AbbVie, Gilead and Merck.

The government-run health system in England is partnering with several major drug companies in an effort to tackle the hepatitis C virus in the country.

NHS England – a regional division of the UK’s National Health Service – said Tuesday it would work with US drugmakers Gilead Sciences, Merck & Co. and AbbVie in an effort to eliminate HCV as a major public health issue in England. The service previously announced the deal would be worth 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) over five years.

The drugmakers will provide new hepatitis C drugs at what the NHS called “the best price” for the service and for taxpayers, while also starting programs with local health services, councils and voluntary groups to find patients and provide testing and treatment.

According to the NHS, about 113,000 people in England are living with chronic hepatitis C, though more than 30,000 have benefited from drugs that cure the virus and have become available thanks to NHS coverage over the last few years.

“Sixty-nine percent of people who have the virus are currently undiagnosed, so the funding in the deal to help find those with hepatitis C and support them into treatment is groundbreaking,” said Rachel Halford, CEO of The Hepatitis C Trust, in a statement.

Under the deal, the NHS said it would find and cure tens of thousands of people with hepatitis C, in the hope that England could become the first country to eliminate the virus. The service established a national hepatitis C patient registry in 2017, making it possible to record and monitor treatment uptake, outcomes and increase diagnosis rates, along with 22 delivery networks designed to improve treatment in local areas.

The NHS said the agreement arises from a procurement approach that is designed to maximize competition between drug companies and that the High Court supported in January.

In November 2018, AbbVie had taken NHS England to court, claiming it had broken procurement rules as it sought suppliers for the effort, which the organization had announced last April. AbbVie’s legal action delayed its implementation by six months, but the High Court ruled against the Chicago-based drugmaker.

AbbVie markets the drug Maviret (glecaprevir/pibrentasvir), which received approval from the European Medicines Agency approved in August 2017 and which the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommended for funding by NHS England in January 2018. NICE, as the pricing watchdog is also known, issues recommendations for NHS England and NHS Wales, while NHS Scotland has its own body, the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

Other drugs approved for HCV in the last few years include AbbVie’s Viekira Pak (ombitasvir/paritaprevir/ritonavir/dasabuvir), Merck’s Zepatier (elbasvir/grazoprevir) and Gilead’s Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), Harvoni (ledipasvir/sofosbuvir) and Epclusa (sofosbuvir/velpatasvir).

Photo: Chris Jackson, Getty Images