THE HAGUE – As the opening ceremony of the 49th Union World Conference on Lung Health kicked off in the Netherlands last night, protesting activists demanded Johnson & Johnson (J&J) slash its price for the blockbuster tuberculosis (TB) drug, bedaquiline.
“We have hope for a greater chance of curing MDR-TB [multi-drug resistant TB] patients who otherwise look at an abysmal cure-rate of 50 percent, but this can only happen if J&J cuts the price for bedaquiline to a dollar a day,” said Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) Sharonann Lynch.
She and other activists, including a number of South Africans from the organisation TB Proof, took to the stage at the opening of the conference which is taking place in The Hague in The Netherlands this week.
We have hope for a greater chance of curing MDR-TB [multi-drug resistant TB] patients who otherwise look at an abysmal cure-rate of 50 percent, but this can only happen if J&J cuts the price for bedaquiline to a dollar a day.
Lynch told Health-e News that South Africa had already negotiated with the pharmaceutical company to bring the price for six months of treatment with the drug down from $900 (R13 125) to $400 (R5 830) – but that this was still too expensive for the majority of high-burden TB countries to afford.
Providing bed aquiline
In June South Africa became the first country to start providing the drug for all drug-resistant TB patients, ahead of the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation in August which recommended the same.
Bedaquiline gives patients a much better chance of being cured and replaces the old injectable drugs which have serious side-effects including deafness.
“We have hope that TB survivors get to explain to MDR and XDR [extensively-drug resistant] patients in the future that they need not endure the 14 000 pills and eight months of painful injections that cause permanent hearing loss, but this can only happen if J&J sets the price to a dollar a day,” said Lynch.
After the protest J&J released a statement and said that their “new price of US$400 per course is genuinely a special effort that we set to encourage rapid scale-up of bedaquiline in countries with a high TB burden”.
The profit debate
“Ongoing suggestions that we generate a profit from the sale of bedaquiline are incorrect and have the potential to only further damage an already fragile environment for TB research and development,” it said.
But activists said that this is not true and that the first new anti-TB drug developed in over four decades remains inaccessible to those who need it most.
Lynch thanked South Africa and others fighting to end TB and said that they will not rest until the price of bedaquiline is brought down.
Said Lynch: “Thank you everyone who honours the dead by fighting for the living.”