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Gilead, other drug companies shrug off price complaints

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Activists protest the high price of Gilead drugs outside the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.
Activists protest the high price of Gilead drugs outside the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.

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

Gregg Alton, 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.

And so it went at the drug industry's biggest showcase, the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, where some executives and investors dismissed public outrage at the industry as misguided.

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Public anger at drug companies is "an abomination," Ron Cohen, chairman of the industry association 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. A slew of new drugs come 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 executive who bought a decades-old drug and increased the price 5,000 percent, becoming a target of nationwide protests before being arrested in December on unrelated securities fraud charges.

On Monday, Gilead Sciences was in the hot seat. Outside the hotel where the J.P. Morgan conference is being held, a handful of protesters held signs declaring "Gilead — Greed," "Public Health Not Private Wealth," and "Jail Gilead Drug Profiteers."

But Gilead president John Milligan 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 price of its hepatitis C drug Sovaldi. Gilead has reported about $27 billion in sales of Sovaldi and a sister drug, Harvoni, since the former was introduced in 2013.

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Gilead defends the price, explaining that Sovaldi can cure hepatitis C, improving patients' lives and eliminating expensive treatments later in life, including liver transplants.

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

Milligan opened his presentation talking about Gilead's efforts to "help the globe" by developing and distributing medications for HIV and Ebola.

Gilead's work on some of those drugs has also drawn protests in the past, especially from AIDS activists concerned about access to HIV medication.

The cost of Sovaldi has become such a burden that some state Medicaid programs are restricting it to patients in the most dire condition. Last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated Sovaldi had boosted Medicare's annual drug costs by between $2 billion and $6.5 billion.

In a poll conducted jointly this fall by STAT 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. (The poll did not name the company.)

And a Senate investigative report released last month said that Gilead knew its prices would make the drug inaccessible to 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, Democrat of Oregon, said at the time.

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Rebecca Robbins can be reached at rebecca.robbins@statnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaDRobbins. Follow Stat on Twitter @statnews.