Software Mogul Bill Gates on the Pricing and Efficacy of Antiviral Drugs for Hepatitis C
Nonetheless, per Bloomberg, last week Bill Gates pontificated about drugs for the treatment of hepatitis C. When apparently asked about the priorities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr Gates said
market forces were working properly in hepatitis C, invoking Gilead Sciences Inc.’s treatments Sovaldi and Harvoni, which have been criticized by insurers and politicians as too expensive at $1,000 a pill or more for 12 weeks of treatment, before discounts and rebates.
While Gilead is the market leader, it’s now facing competition from Merck & Co. and AbbVie Inc., forcing prices lower.
'Curing hepatitis C, this is a phenomenal thing, and now you have multiple drug companies competing in terms of the quality and the price of that offering,' he said.
More broadly, Mr Gates defended the high prices of drugs in the US, partly because:
The drug companies are turning out miracles....
Not a Wonder Drug, According to the Clinical Research Evidence
Mr Gates, it seems, has not done a critical review of the data on the new antiviral treatments for hepatitis C. In fact, 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 Internal Medicine 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.)
Why Do Rich People Who Run Foundations Tout Expensive Drugs?
Yet there is something about hepatitis C and the newer treatments of it that seems to inspire rich people who run foundations to sound like marketers for Gilead, sans evidence to support their viewpoints. About one year ago, former US President Bill Clinton, now a leader of the well-publicized Clinton Foundation and of the now apparently independent Clinton Health Access Initiative, said something similar, as we posted here:
Clinton pointed to new hepatitis C drugs, Sovaldi and Harvoni, which are sold by Gilead Sciences for more than $80,000 for a 12-week program of treatment. Those medications often cure a disease that can cause liver disease and eventually lead to transplants or death, which are expensive, too. But the sticker price on the drug has caused a backlash by payers and patients.
'Who wants to let somebody's liver rot? Nobody,' Clinton said. 'Who's got $80,000 to spend? Not many. And if you're a small businessperson and you're in a small pool [of employer-based insurers], are you going to fire somebody who needs that treatment? These are all practical problems, and we can solve them.'
So what is going on here? In a general sense, it may be that people who have become very rich, and have held very high level executive positions, start to believe they are expert on everything, especially in a country increasingly dominated by market fundamentalism/ neoliberalism in which money is touted as the ultimate measure of everything important. But more specifically, Mr Gates may also be spending too much time with the top brass of his foundation, who may be all too used to hawking expensive drugs.
Former Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Executives Running Supposedly Charitable Foundations
In particular, the current CEO of the Gates Foundation is Dr Susan Desmond-Hellmann. When Dr Desmond-Hellmann's appointment as Chancellor of UCSF was announced in 2009, I suggested that she was a very unusual choice because of aspects of her track record in the pharmaceutical/ biotechnology business. During her previous service as President of Drug Development at Genentech, Dr Desmond-Hellmann had defended the then sky high pricing of bevacizumab. Of course, Dr Desmond-Hellmann, as a top executive, personally profited from such pricing. In her last year at Genentech while the company was still independent, her total compensation was over $8,000,000. As we discussed in 2014, while she was at UCSF, questions arose about her committment to public health when it was revealed she and her husband had large stock holdings in the tobacco company Altria. Yet she continued to dismiss the importance of her many apparent conflicts of interest.
Also, in 2011, prior to the hiring of Dr Desmond-Hellmann, as we discussed here, a PLoS Medicine article by Stuckler et al(3) suggested a revolving door between the leadership of the Gates Foundation and of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies,
Members of personnel also move between the Foundation and pharmaceutical companies. For example, in April 2010, a former Merck senior vice president, Richard Henriques, became the chief financial officer of the Gates Foundation. At least two other members of the Gates Foundation leadership have transferred from the leadership of GlaxoSmithKline to sit on the Foundation’s board of directors, including Kate James, the chief communications officer, and Tachi Yamada, until February 2011, the head of the Foundation’s global health program. Similar patterns were observed with the other foundations studied.
Foundations Promoting the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Agenda
Dr Desmond-Helmann has continued to use her bully pulpit at the Gates Foundation to promote high-tech medicine that uses the newest, most expensive drugs. For example, in an interview in December, 2015 in the Washington Post, she promoted "precision public health" which would emphasize the supposed "innovation, that speed, that ability to use big data" characteristic of precision medicine brought to public health. However, "precision medicine" has so far not been proven to fulfill its promise to benefit patients.
In addition, in May, 2016, a Wall Street Journal article noted that she has led the Gates Foundation to invest in commercial biotechnology firms,
Dr. Desmond-Hellmann cited a $52 million investment by the foundation in CureVac, a German biopharmaceutical company, as the type of partnership that could produce new tools against epidemics. CureVac is developing vaccine technologies based on messenger RNA that would instruct the body to produce its own defenses against infections. The funding, which the foundation announced in 2015, is for construction of a manufacturing facility; the foundation said it would provide additional funding to develop vaccines for several infectious diseases.
Are these investments the best way to provide better global health care? An aside in the Bloomberg article suggests they may be more about making money.
The foundation reported in May that it had received an unexpected boost to its endowment when a stake in a small biotechnology firm, Anacor Pharmaceuticals Inc., sold for $86.7 million -- about 17 times the fund’s original investment. While the foundation had invested in Anacor to encourage the company’s work in neglected diseases, Anacor shares took off after its toenail fungus drug was approved.
I am sure that toenail fungus is not a major public health problem anywhere, much less in the developing world.
The tragedy here is that the Gates Foundation, which appears to be the largest private foundation in the US (and the world), has a huge impact on global health, and yet its leadership is squandering its moral authority in the pursuit of the pharmaceutical/ biotechnology agenda. A review of a new book out about the foundation in November, 2015 in the Intercept noted that the book's author
spends much more time discussing whether the Gates Foundation is protecting the patents of pharmaceutical companies and whether it is making common cause with Monsanto to spread genetically modified crops in Africa
In January, 2016, the Global Policy Forum put out a report that, per a Guardian article, accused
organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and others are promoting solutions to global problems that may undermine the UN and other international organisations, says the report by the independent Global Policy Forum, which monitors the work of UN bodies and global policymaking.
Futhermore, the report asserted,
Through their multiple channels of influence, the Rockefeller and Gates foundations have been very successful in promoting their market-based and bio-medical approaches towards global health challenges in the research and health policy community – and beyond.
More specifically, an article in the Independent accused the foundation of having a
ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation
The report, per the Guardian, also accused the foundation of conflicts of interest,
The report also questions why the Gates foundation invests heavily in companies like Monsanto and Bayer. 'In addition to its grant-making activities, the Gates foundation has recently stepped up its support for the biotechnological industry directly.'
Also, similar to the PLoS Medicine article cited above(3)
'There is a revolving door between the Gates foundation and pharmaceutical corporations. Many of the foundation’s staff had held positions at pharmaceutical companies,' the report adds.
More dramatically, per the Independent,
the Gates Foundation 'often appears to be a massive, vertically integrated multinational corporation, controlling every step in a supply chain that reaches from its Seattle-based boardroom … to millions of end-users in the villages of African and south Asia.'
Furthermore, per the Intercept book review article, the larger problem is that the Gate Foundation and its CEO are largely unaccountable,
Bill and Melinda Gates answer to no electorate, board, or shareholders; they are accountable mainly to themselves. What’s more, the many millions of dollars the foundation has bestowed on nonprofits and news organizations has led to a natural reluctance on their part to criticize it. There’s even a name for it: the 'Bill Chill' effect.
I would note parenthetically the foundation's board of trustees only includes Bill and Melinda Gates, Mr Gates' father, and Mr Warren Buffet. Most large foundations have considerably larger boards of trustees, with at least some diversity in family membership and backgrounds.
In an interview with the Financial Times in March, 2016, Dr Desmond-Hellmann made a hash of addressing the accountability issue:
Accountability is another concern. To whom do these multibillion-dollar foundations answer?
For once, Dr Desmond-Hellmann’s confident responses falter. In reply to a suggestion that transparency is not the same thing as accountability — putting everything online means you can see what the foundation is doing, but does not mean that it is being held to account — she seems uncharacteristically stuck for words.
'The way that people can hold us accountable is to look at what we achieved as a foundation through our collaborations,' she says, quickly regaining her poise.
So even the foundation's CEO cannot say to whom, and how she is accountable.
So maybe Bill Gates' seemingly ill-informed apologia for the extremely high drug prices charged in the US, and his lack of understanding of the evidence about the efficacy, or lack thereof, of some of these high priced drugs is a small humorous story that indicates just the tip of the iceberg. It appears that in our current market fundamentalist, neoliberal world, foundations may be more about promoting the commercial interests of their board members and officers than about improving the lot of humanity. Yet for the most part they may succeed in obfuscating what they are doing through the haze of marketing and public relations.
True health care reform would first make transparent the web of institutional and individual conflicts of interest that seems to tie together nearly all big health care organizations, and open discussion of how to make health care organizations better serve health care rather than the narrow financial interest of their top leaders.
A "blue screen of death"
1. Ollendorf DA, Tice JA et al. The comparative clinical effectiveness and value of simeprevir and sofosbuvir in chronic hepatitis C viral infection. JAMA Intern 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. Stuckler D, Basu S, McKee M. Global health philanthropy and institutional relationships: how should conflicts of interest be addressed? PLoS Med 8(4): e1001020. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001020. Link here.