Hepatitis C is now the most common chronic blood-borne viral infection in the United States. The World Health Organization predicts that it will cause more deaths than AIDS by the end of the decade. A recent Decision Resources report concluded that the hepatitis C market is poised for dramatic growth, with sales of related pharma products expected to explode from $1.7 billion in 2001 to $6.6 billion in 2011.
Many people contracted the disease before scientists developed a blood screening test for it in 1992. Because patients' symptoms often lie dormant for many years, those who were infected in the ¢80s and early ¢90s are now exhibiting symptoms and seeking treatment. Decision Resources infectious disease therapeutic area director Julia Bradsher says that pharma companies and public health agencies' initiatives to increase screening for at-risk patients are also raising the hepatitis C profile."The cover story in the April 22, 2002 issue of Newsweek featured hepatitis C. I'm sure Schering-Plough and Roche were both pleased to see that article in the popular press," says Bradsher. "One of its messages is that anybody in society can have hepatitis C. As the face of the disease becomes more familiar, it will be more acceptable for patients to claim they have it, then seek the proper treatment-just like with HIV."
"I'd been 'saving string' on the subject for some time, but sensed a growing level of awareness and concern this spring," says Geoffrey Cowley, the Newsweek senior editor who authored the hepatitis C cover story. "HCV received a lot of attention at the human retroviruses conference in Seattle in February, and in March, I sensed that my friends and colleagues all knew people who had recently discovered infections they acquired decades ago. Considering the vast number of infections-and the low level of general public awareness-I became convinced that hepatitis C was both an interesting social phenomenon and an urgent public health issue. Treatment was just one aspect of the story, but the drug companies and their scientists were helpful and generally eager to share their ideas and strategies for making treatment more tolerable."
Schering-Plough and Roche will likely lead the treatment market with peg-ylated interferons, Peg-Intron-which is already marketed-and Pegasys, expected to be approved later this year. Schering-Plough has the first-to-market position in terms of sales, but Roche's Pegasys may capture substantial share because it demonstrated better efficacy in certain special populations. In addition, more than 30 companies have hepatitis C therapies under development, including XTL Biopharmaceutical's XTL-002, Vertex/Eli Lilly's protease inhibitor VX-950, Nabi Biopharmaceutical's polyclonal antibody Civacir, and a Viro Pharma-Wyeth collaboration to develop a polymerase inhibitor. Another potential major market player may be Chiron, which collaborated with the National Institutes of Health to discover the hep-atitis C virus and may be the first company to bring a vaccine to the market.