PrEP Price Gouging: Should We Expect Same With COVID Vaccine?

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday December 15, 2020

Concerned about the availability and affordability of burgeoning COVID-19 vaccines? Price gouging is nothing new. Just look at the history of HIV preventative drugs.

A recent op-ed piece for NBC by Richard Morgan, author of "Born in Bedlam," examines how focus in the U.S. on pharmaceutical patents ultimately prioritizes profit over people. Pharmacology, Morgan says, "has become more a branch of industry than of science, and it is therefore controlled by lobbying interests rather than either science or the public good."

Morgan points to Gilead, the patent holder of Truvada — a pill introduced in 2004 to fight HIV infection and developing into the more widely-known PrEP in 2012, a pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV. "Generic versions are already sold elsewhere in the world and, usually, when drugs go generic in America, it's an open field, which dramatically lowers prices," Morgan says. However, only one company — Teva, in Israel — was granted rights by Gilead to produce a generic version for the U.S. market.

Currently, Truvada costs U.S. users approximately $1700 per month. The generic alternative by Teva, upon its release in October, goes for $1400 a month. As Morgan notes, most people who are insured pay significantly less out-of-pocket. Some patients are provided with discount coupons by Gilead worth $7200 per year with no limit on how much of the discount can be applied each month. Teva also offers the same $7200 discount, but limited to $600 per month. For patients in California and Massachusetts, such pharmacological discounts are forbidden.

By contrast, where generic alternatives — such as Ricovir, Tavin-EM, and Tenof-EM —are available to patients outside the U.S., the cost ranges $210 to $720 per year.

Morgan chalks the problem up to not just Gilead but also to "unaffected politicians and policymakers" who only view healthcare as a for-profit industry when "every other industrialized nation manages to recognize how unnecessary profit-driven health care is." Meanwhile, Gilead is pushing patients toward Descovy, the company's "newest, pricier rival to Truvada," the latter of which goes fully generic at the end of the year.

All of this must be considered as the U.S. continues to battle the current pandemic. Morgan concludes, "As Americans and the world have witnessed the planet's greatest economy suffer some of the planet's poorest COVID-19 health care, it is increasingly clear to everyone that government has all the legal and political power it needs to improve the lives of millions with a snap of its fingers, but none of the willpower."

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.