Drug makers dismiss outrage over high prices as ‘abomination’
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SAN FRANCISCO — The protesters carried handwritten signs accusing drug maker Gilead Sciences of greed for pricing its breakthrough hepatitis C drug at $84,000 per treatment.

So it perhaps wasn’t surprising that during a panel discussion here Monday, a Gilead executive was asked how he lives with himself.

Gregg Alton, the executive vice president for corporate and medical affairs, joked that he goes running. Then his tone turned serious as he talked about research, innovation, and the value of life-saving new drugs. “I sleep quite well,” he concluded.

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And so it went at the drug industry’s biggest showcase, the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference that’s running all week in the heart of this city’s financial district. As executives and investors shuttled from meeting to meeting, seeking deals, many dismissed public outrage at the industry as misguided.

Public anger at drug companies is “an abomination,” Ron Cohen, chairman of the big industry group BIO, said at the Biotech Showcase.

All the talk about pharma profiteering, Cohen said, is “a perversion of reality.”

Many drug makers have raised prices in the past year.  And a slew of new drugs have hit the market with eye-popping price tags: cancer drugs at more than $11,000 a month; cholesterol drugs at more than $14,000 a year. Then there’s Martin Shkreli, the pharma executive who bought up a decades-old drug and hiked the price 5,000 percent, turning himself into a target of nationwide protests before he was arrested last month on securities fraud charges.

But it was Gilead Sciences that was in the hot seat Monday. Outside the stately old hotel where the J.P. Morgan conference is being held, a handful of protesters marched with signs declaring “Gilead = Greed,” “Public Health Not Private Wealth,” and “Jail Gilead Drug Profiteers.” 

Gilead President John Milligan, however, said drug pricing is “more of a campaign issue than an actual issue,” the San Francisco Business Times reported.

The company, based in Foster City, Calif., has drawn the ire of lawmakers, doctors, and patients for the the price of its hepatitis C drug Sovaldi. Gilead has made about $27 billion in sales for Sovaldi and a sister drug, Harvoni, since the former was introduced in 2013.

Gilead defends the price by explaining that Sovaldi can cure patients of hepatitis C, preserving their health and eliminating the need for expensive treatments later in life, including liver transplants.

The company was also keen on Monday to spotlight its work on other drugs.

Milligan opened his presentation by talking about Gilead’s efforts to “help the globe” by developing and distributing medications for HIV, Ebola, and the parasitic disease visceral leishmaniasis, among other conditions.

Gilead’s work on some of those drugs has drawn protests in the past, especially from AIDS activists concerned about access to the HIV medication. But Sovaldi has taken center stage lately.

The price of the drug has become a burden not just for individual patients but also for the Medicaid system. Some states have begun restricting access to the drug to patients in the most dire condition. Last year the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that Sovaldi had boosted Medicare’s annual drug costs by between $2 and $6.5 billion.

In a poll conducted jointly this fall by STAT and and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, more than 9 of 10 respondents said it was “unreasonable” to price a hypothetical hepatitis C drug in the manner that Gilead did. (That poll did not specifically name the company.)

And a Senate investigation released last month found that Gilead knew its prices would make the drug inaccessible for many Americans. 

“If Gilead’s approach is the future of how blockbuster drugs are launched in America, it’s going to cost billions and billions of dollars to treat just a fraction of patients in America,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said at the time.

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