Chinese people in the past have gone to the U.S. to for cancer treatment and have snatched up cold medicine and painkillers on trips to Japan. Chinese now go overseas for another medical purpose: curing their liver diseases.
Although treatment of the virus has gone through revolutionary development in the last few years, none of the direct-acting antiviral agents which have shown to cure more than 90% of patients within a few months, have yet been approved by the Chinese regulator. China still uses old-generation therapies including injections of interferon, which has harsh side effects such as headache and hair loss.
Even after a year of being treated with weekly interferon injections, 46-year-old Sun Wei from Shenyang in China’s northeast wasn’t cured. Instead she had lost 42 kilos, or 92 pounds, and developed severe joint pain. “I barely had the appetite to eat anything, or energy to do housework,” she said. “I looked older than 60.”
In October, Ms. Sun boarded a plane to New Delhi with the help of a Shanghai-based company. It was a first trip outside China. She came back with three months’ worth of Gilead Sciences’ blockbuster drug Sovaldi, which is still in the testing stage in China. She says she now tests negative for hepatitis C.
A number of Chinese companies are tapping into the growing population – now estimated at around 10 million – of Chinese infected with hepatitis C with especially designed trips to countries such as India, where Sovaldi and Gilead’s Harvoni are sold at a much cheaper price than the U.S. price tag of $84,000 and $98,000 per regimen, respectively, and to Laos and Bangladesh, where generic versions are available.
For example, a 35,000 yuan ($5,323) four-day package to India offered by Kangantu, a Shanghai-based company, includes medicines, consultations with doctors, round-trip flights, a four-star hotel and a half-day tour of New Delhi. Patients who sign up for the trip will be taken to a hospital where the all-oral drugs are prescribed by the doctors.
A similar package offered by Beijing-based Medihorizon to Bangladesh cost 30,000 yuan ($4,600).
A recent report by Founder Securities estimates overseas medical tourism from Chinese with hepatitis C could potentially be worth more than $50 billion. The report doesn’t say how many Chinese have gone abroad in search of a cure.
Data from China’s State Food and Drug Administration show that Hepatitis C drugs from Gilead Sciences, Bristol-Meyers Squibb and AbbVie are all in trials in China, aiming for approvals in the near future. The Founder report predicts that if Sovaldi and Harvoni are priced reasonably, they will have explosive sales in China. Harvoni was the world’s second best-selling drug in 2015, racking up $13.8 billion for Gilead Sciences.
–Fanfan Wang. Follow her on Twitter @wangfanfan.