Frustrated by the high price of antiviral drugs, thousands of patients from London to Moscow to Sydney are turning to a new wave of online “buyers clubs” to get cheap generic medicines to cure hepatitis C and protect against HIV infection.
While regulators warn that buying drugs online is risky, scientific data presented at a recent medical conference suggest that treatment arranged through buyers club can be just as effective as through conventional channels.
Will Nutland, who supports a drug-buying network in London and takes Indian-made generic drugs that are not available through the health service to prevent HIV infection, thinks the latest research will build confidence in such schemes.
“This new data shows that so far we’ve got it right,” the HIV activist said. “It gives us a boost in confidence in the types of drugs that are available online.”
The buyers clubs’ websites act as middlemen by providing details of trusted online pharmacies and drug manufacturers, exploiting a loophole in World Trade Organization patent rules that allows small-scale imports of medicines for personal use.
Like Ron Woodroof, the 1980s AIDS patient in the movie ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, the sponsors of today’s drug clubs aim to help patients who can’t get the drugs they want through local healthcare systems by bringing in medicines from abroad.
But while Woodroof had to smuggle drugs in bulk across the Mexican border, users of modern-day clubs can, in many countries, tap orders into their computers quite legally.
Savings can be huge. A month’s generic supply of the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) HIV drugs emtricitabine and tenofovir costs about 45 pounds ($56) online in Britain, around a tenth of Gilead Sciences’ branded version Truvada.
A Indian-made course of treatment for the liver-destroying disease hepatitis C, meanwhile, can be had for around 1,000 pounds against a list price for branded drugs of around 35,000.
Gilead is also a leading producer of patented hepatitis C drugs, along with Merck and AbbVie.
BRAVE ENOUGH TO TRY
“Resorting to a buyers club is clearly not conventional medicine but it is something some people have been brave enough to try and it seems to be working,” said Andrew Hill of London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
The need for those laboratory tests is controversial, since it costs money to test people taking medicines that were not prescribed by the official healthcare system in the first place.
But Nneka Nwokolo, who presented the data on PrEP in Glasgow, believes it makes sense, given the proven efficacy of PrEP in several clinical trials. She works at a National Health Service (NHS) sexual health clinic in London’s Soho that has been offering blood tests for generic PrEP users since February.
“HIV rates among gay men are not going down, despite all our interventions, including promoting condom use. But we know PrEP works and it has been shown to make a significant difference to HIV acquisition,” she said.
Clinical trials have shown PrEP cuts the risk of catching the virus during sex by more than 90 percent.
Across Europe and around the world access to PrEP remains patchy. In Britain, routine use is stalled by a funding row, as well as doubts over cost-effectiveness, based on the high price of branded Truvada.
Access to hepatitis C drugs faces similar budget constraints in many countries, given the high cost of brand-name products. Gilead’s Sovaldi initially cost $1,000 a pill in the United States, although competition has since pushed prices down.