Exclusive: 71 million people stand to benefit from reduced price treatment for virus which can lead to liver cirrhosis, cancer and death

An affordable hepatitis C treatment has been shown to be safe and effective, with very high cure rates for patients including hard-to-treat cases, in interim clinical trial results that offer hope to the 71 million people living with the disease worldwide.

The treatment is expected to cost $300 for 12 weeks, or $3.50 per day, in Malaysia, where trials were conducted along with Thailand a fraction of the cost of other hepatitis C medicines produced by major drugmakers, which often run to tens of thousands of dollars.

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), a not-for-profit organisation, is working with the Egyptian drugmaker Pharco Pharmaceuticals to bring a combination treatment of two hepatitis C tablets, ravidasvir (a new drug) and sofosbuvir, to countries that cannot afford to pay the high prices charged by US companies Gilead and AbbVie. This is taking longer than expected but has moved a big step closer with the latest results.

The interim results of the phase II/III trial of 301 people will be presented in Paris on Thursday. It has been funded by Mdecins Sans Frontires, one of DNDis founding partners which also include Frances Institut Pasteur.

DNDi said 97% of patients were cured after being treated with the combination pill for 12 weeks. Even hard-to-treat cases such as people with HIV or liver cirrhosis showed very high cure rates, of 96% and 97% respectively.

Egyptian labourers queue for hepatitis C test. Egypt has the highest prevalence of hepatitis C infections in the world 7% of Egyptians between the ages of 15 and 59 are infected with the virus. The epidemic started after government mass vaccinations were carried out with unsterilised syringes in the 1950s. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne viral infection that can lead to liver cirrhosis, cancer and death. It affects more than 71 million people worldwide and causes 400,000 deaths a year. Although highly effective medicines have been available for several years, their high cost means that less than three million people are on treatment.

US drugmaker Gilead has lowered the price of its Harvoni tablet and other medicines in lower and middle-income countries, but it is still too high for governments to roll out mass hepatitis C treatment programmes.

Harvoni now costs about $48,000 for a 12-week course in Malaysia and $12,000 in Chile. Gileads previous Sovaldi treatment cost $1,000 a pill, or $84,000 over 12 weeks. Prices vary around the world and tend to be highest in the US.

Gilead has come under pressure from US rival AbbVie, which launched a new hepatitis C medicine, Mavyret, last year with a shorter, eight-week treatment course priced at $26,400.

Bernard Pcoul, executive director of DNDi, said: The results indicate that the sofosbuvir/ravidasvir combination is comparable to the very best hepatitis C therapies available today but it is priced affordably and could allow an alternative option in countries excluded from pharmaceutical company access programmes.

The treatment is expected to be available in Malaysia within one to two years. DNDi has also signed deals in Latin America to make it available for $500 for the 12 week course, with a provision to bring the price down to $300.

The trial using medicines produced by Pharco was run by DNDi and co-sponsored by the Malaysian Ministry of Health.

The medicine has also been tested on 300 patients in Egypt, who have different genetic characteristics, with a 100% cure rate. Further studies are being carried out in South Africa and Ukraine to cover all six genotypes of the disease.

DNDi has licensed rights for ravidasvir in low and middle income countries from the Californian firm that developed it, Presidio Pharmaceuticals. The UK has an estimated 215,000 hepatitis C cases, while the US has 3.4m.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/12/non-profits-300-hepatitis-c-cure-as-effective-as-84000-alternative

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