Gilead Sciences is funneling millions of dollars into Tennessee to prevent the spread of hepatitis C.
The pharmaceutical company also makes a pricey treatment for the virus, and the prevention program does not address the high cost of the cure.
Hepatitis C spreads rapidly through communities of intravenous drug users, which is why Gilead has been putting money where the opioid crisis has hit hardest, in Appalachia. The industry funding will be directed to programs like needle exchanges, where hepatitis C is often low on the priority list, in an effort to reduce risk of outbreaks.
"If we don't treat that person's opioid use disorder, they could die before they even get access to other forms of health care such as hep C," says Kimberly Sue, medical director of the Harm Reduction Coalition which is partnering with Gilead. "These things can't happen in a vacuum."
Hepatitis C creates longer-term challenges than hepatitis A. The two are amid overlapping outbreaks in Tennessee. Both affect the liver in similar ways, but hepatitis A is usually a short-term illness, so the focus is more on vaccination.
Hepatitis C can become chronic, with an estimated 70,000 Tennesseans living with the disease. According to the CDC, Tennessee is among the hardest-hit states.
Gilead has a drug that can cure it. But the full regimen costs more than $80,000, often paid for by government through either Medicaid or in prisons. This year, the Tennessee Department of Corrections requested an additional $25 million to treat inmates, acknowledging the money still wouldn't cover everyone who needs treatment.
The prevention effort announced this week does not offer discounted medication, though Gilead has been working on a cheaper version. But the company says the aim is for fewer people to even need it.
"I think it's unusual that we're saying let's not tackle hepatitis C, let's also deal with the opioid epidemic. Let's really try to work at that and the underlying causes — something that's not really in our bailiwick," says Dr. Jill Foster, Gilead's government affairs director. "Our experience is that the two really go hand in hand."