As we wrote, most recently last week, the hepatitis C screening and treatment bandwagon keeps rolling along. There is constant public argument about the prices of treatment regimens, which approach $100,000 per patient in the US. However, nearly all the public chatter, which seems mostly to come from corporate public relations people and marketers, investors and investment advisers, physicians with financial conflicts of interest, and pundits with little background in clinical epidemiology, seems never to question the assumption that the new drugs for hepatitis C are miraculous cures, which, of course, makes it hard to argue that they should not cost royal amounts.
The Lack of Good Evidence for the New Hepatitis C Treatments
However, starting in March, 2014, we have posted about the lack of good evidence from clinical research suggesting these drugs are in fact so wondrous. The drugs are now touted as "cures," at least by the drug companies, (look here), and physicians are urged to do widespread screening to find patients with asymptomatic hepatitis C so they can benefit from early, albeit expensive treatment.
However, as we pointed out (e.g., here and here)
- The best evidence available suggests that most patients with hepatitis C will not go on to have severe complications of the disease (cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer), and hence could not benefit much from treatment.
- There is no evidence from randomized controlled trials that treatment prevents most of these severe complications
- There is no clear evidence that "sustained virologic response," (SVR), the surrogate outcome measure promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, means cure.
- While the new drugs are advertised as having fewer adverse effects than older drugs, it is not clear that their benefits, whatever they may be, outweigh their harms.
Furthermore, health care professionals and researchers with heftier credentials in clinical epidemiology and evidence based medicine than mine have since published similar concerns. These included
- a report from the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (the English summary is here)
- an article in JAMA from the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (1)
- a report from the Center for Evidence-Based Policy (link here)
- an article in Prescrire International (2)
These publications and your humble scribe noted that the clinical trials or other types of clinical research about new hepatitis C treatment published in the most prominent journals had numerous methodologic problems that all seemed likely to make the new drugs look better, perhaps intentionally. (See posts here, here, and here.)
The British Medical Journal Publishes a Skeptical Review of Hepatitis C Screening
Now an article in the British Medical Journal again raises questions about whether the emperor of hepatitis C treatment has some missing garments.(3) To date, this article has received minimal attention from large media outlets. I could only find stories in Bloomberg, and by the San Francisco Chronicle to date.
The article by Koretz et al focused on the evidence, or lack thereof in favor of screening for hepatitis C, but affirmed the following points
Most Patients with Hepatitis C Will Not Go On to Have Severe Complications of the Disease
At least 2.7 million people are infected with hepatitis C virus in the US, and around 16 000 people each year die or have liver transplantations because of the disease. This suggests that less than 0.6% of infected patients will die of liver disease or be transplanted each year.
Retrospective studies of the natural course of hepatitis suggest that end stage liver disease is common and that it takes about 20 years to develop cirrhosis and 30 years to develop liver cancer. However, such series are usually composed of people who have a medical problem and are thus a sicker subpopulation of the people with chronic hepatitis C infection (referral bias). Furthermore, the total number of infected patients from which they are drawn is unknown.
The risk of developing end stage liver disease is low for the first three decades of infection. Unfortunately, data on the risk beyond that point are limited. Only three studies provide data beyond 30 years, and the data are for children and women (both groups perhaps being at lower risk of progression) and for men in whom it was not clearly proved that the infections were chronic when diagnosed. Nonetheless, these data are consistent with previously cited epidemiological data from the general population, and it is likely that 80-85% of patients with chronic hepatitis C will die from non-hepatic causes
There is No Evidence from Randomized Controlled Trials that Treatment Prevents Most of these Complications
The most convincing way to establish efficacy of treatment is through well designed and conducted randomised, placebo controlled trials using clinical outcomes (morbidity and mortality). However, such trials are available only for interferon monotherapy. Ten randomised trials of interferon alfa have been conducted in patients with severe fibrosis or cirrhosis. The results were disappointing, even though at the time, expert opinion advocated interferon treatment for these patients.
There is No Clear Evidence that SVR Means Cure
Sustained virological response is not a cure. Viral RNA is sometimes found in body tissues even when the serum is clear; in some studies this has been found frequently. The virus also reappears in some patients with sustained response, and though this might be thought to be due to reinfection, at least sometimes these events represent the reappearance of the same virus. Moreover, a few patients with a sustained response develop end stage liver disease. In the largest observational study to assess this risk, 1001 patients with severe fibrosis (84% with cirrhosis) with sustained virological response were followed for up to eight years. During that time, 50 developed hepatocellular carcinomas, a 1% annual risk. Observational studies have suggested that the annual incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma in people with compensated cirrhosis secondary to hepatitis C infection is 1.4-3.3%.
There is No Evidence that the Benefits of Treatment Outweigh Its Harms
Claims of increased safety or tolerability of the newer treatment have been based on fewer and less severe side effects. However, the new drugs can still cause serious adverse events (resulting in persistent disability, hospital admission, or death).
Safety data are limited for the newest drugs. However, in a trial of sofosbuvir versus peginterferon plus ribavirin, 3% of participants taking sofosbuvir experienced serious adverse events compared with 1% in the peginterferon plus ribavirin arm (difference not significant). Combination therapy with sofosbuvir plus ledipasvir with or without ribavirin, was associated with a 0.5-2% rate of serious adverse events. According to a recent analysis of US Food and Drug Administration data, over one year telaprevir accounted for the single greatest number of reported severe and fatal skin reactions of any drug monitored. Unfortunately, we cannot weigh the risk versus the benefit at this time because we have no data on the precise benefit (if any).
Koretz et al supplied these conclusions:
If the treatment of hepatitis C is to be scaled up to cover a large portion of the 125-150 million infected people worldwide, regulatory agencies should ensure that drugs have been evaluated by long term follow-up of clinical outcomes (not just surrogate markers) in several thousands of patients. The financial cost of treatments have been discussed elsewhere, but given the uncertainty about the validity of the surrogate markers, the lack of evidence regarding clinical outcomes of treatment or of screening strategies, and the adverse events caused by the newer regimens, screening may be premature.
By the same logic, it is not clear that treatment of asymptomatic patients found to have hepatitis C provides benefits that outweigh its harms.
Thus, more authoritative voices are saying that the hepatitis C treatment emperor is seriously fashion challenged.
If there is no good evidence that these drugs do more good than harm for asymptomatic patients, why should physicians prescribe them for these patients? If use of these drugs in general has not been shown to do more good than harm, why should they be prescribed for any but the most desperate patients? Finally, if these drugs have not been shown to do more good than harm, and the lack of evidence is clearly the responsibility of the drugs' manufacturers who chose not to do very large and/or long-term randomized controlled trials and not to assess clinical outcomes, what justification is there for the gargantuan prices of these drugs?
A larger societal question is why the public discussion has been so dominated by enthusiasts for these drugs, and so little informed by the existing evidence, or lack thereof, from clinical research?
To repeat,.. the Sovaldi (and now Harvoni, Viekira Pak, etc) case is a signal example of how our health care system is awash in marketing hype and public relations buzz that has swamped rational skeptical thinking about logic and evidence. That marketing and PR is ever enriching managers while it will send the rest of us, health care professionals included, to the poor house. And all the money we spend will likely not buy us the promised miracles and triumphs.
It is disappointing that so many physicians and other health professionals have been caught up in this hype and spin, probably abetted by their wishful thinking about cures of hepatitis C, and perhaps also abetted by financial conflicts of interest. Yet to protect the best interests of their patients, they should be rigorously skeptical of illogical or evidence-free arguments made to further vested financial interests.
As we have said until blue in the face, true health care reform would bring some skeptical thinking and regard for evidence and logic into the health policy discussion.
ADDENDUM (19 January, 2015) - See also comments in the HealthNewsReview.org blog.
ADDENDUM (22 January, 2015) - See an analysis of logical fallacies found in comments arguing with this post, and employed by authors of rapid responses to the Kortetz et al article in the BMJ, in this post.
ADDENDUM (28 January, 2015) - This post was republished in OpenHealth News here.
1. Ollendorf DA, Tice JA et al. The comparative clinical effectiveness and value of simeprevir and sofosbuvir in chronic hepatitis C viral infection. JAMA Inte Med 2014. Link here.
2. Sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), active against hepatitis C virus, but evaluation is incomplete. Prescrire Int 2015; 24: 5- 10. Link here.
3. Koretz RL, Lin KW, Ioannidis JPA, Lenzer J. Is widespread screening for hepatitis C justified? Br Med J 2015; 350: g7809. Link here.