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Corey, Advocates Demand Generic PrEP

A Big Pharma monopoly holding back progress on HIV, advocates say

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, joined by fellow elected officials and HIV/ AIDS advocates, speaks about PrEP affordability at the AIDS Memorial Park in Greenwich Village on Monday morning.
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City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other elected officials joined advocates on Monday morning to call on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to terminate a patent on PrEP and allow for a generic version of the medication that dramatically reduces the risk of being infected with HIV.

PrEP, also known as Truvada, is sold exclusively by Gilead Sciences, which, according to breakthepatent.org, has taken advantage of its patent on the drug by spiking the monthly cost from $6 to $1,600, keeping it well out of reach for many of the people who need it the most. Further controversy has erupted over the US government’s funding of the drug’s development, all while Gilead profits handsomely.

Advocates say that the drug could wipe out the epidemic without even needing a vaccine — but that is only possible if the NIH makes it accessible.

“Gilead Sciences’ 250 times markup on Truvada as PrEP, a publicly funded invention, is an egregious instance of special interests trumping the public health needs of the American people,” said Christian Urrutia, who is co-founder of the PrEP4All Collaboration, a group pushing federal agencies to “break the patent” on Truvada. Urrutia led Monday morning’s event at the AIDS Memorial in the West Village.

Johnson said that as an HIV-positive elected official, he feels he has a responsibility to those who came before him to do everything in his power to end the epidemic.

“The cost of PrEP in our country reveals something deeply rotten about our health care system, and the NIH needs to march in and break the patent immediately,” he said. “This is life or death and there is no time to waste.”

Former State Senator Tom Duane, who in 1994 became one of the first out gay members of the City Council, put it bluntly when he said the issue is “not complicated” and blasted the drug’s limited availability as “an outrage.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo claims that the state is on pace to end the epidemic by 2020, but there have been red flags. The rate at which new infections have dropped in New York City has slowed down, giving even more fuel to the sense of urgency.

“To end AIDS as an epidemic in New York, we need to nearly triple the number of people using PrEP across this state, and dramatically increase the percentage of PrEP users who are low-income,” said Charles King, the CEO of Housing Works, a nonprofit fighting HIV and homelessness in the city. “Drug pricing reform is vital, as is shoring up our HIV infrastructure with any savings from lower drug prices, so that it can adequately deliver PrEP services.”

Lower East Side Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who chairs the Hospitals Committee, and Chelsea Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly Health Committee, were among the other lawmakers in attendance. ACT UP New York, the National Action Network, and VOCAL-NY were also present.

Gottfried recently outlined a proposal for the New York Health Act, a single payer, universal care program that would improve access for marginalized groups who have been excluded from important HIV prevention services.

President Donald Trump, in his recent State of the Union Address, talked about eradicating the epidemic nationwide by 2030, but that plan has been met with widespread skepticism in light of his own attempts to cripple funding for HIV prevention and treatment.

In response to Trump’s plan, advocates say the better approach is to follow the Act Now: End AIDS Coalition, a joint effort led by AIDS United with input from the HIV, public health, and reproductive health communities, which has identified a goal of ending the epidemic by 2025.

“Compared to the community’s six-year plan, the Trump administra­tion’s 10-year strategy will waste time, money, and lives,” King told Gay City News earlier this month. “We must see an immediate stop to attacks on the Affordable Care Act, human rights, sexual and reproductive rights, immigrants, and all the communities most impacted by the epidemic.”

Updated 4:34 pm, February 18, 2019
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