On Sunday 27 December, the world celebrated pioneers of a long journey of eradicating Hepatitis C Virus (HCV): Michael Houghton, Harvey Alter, and Charles Rice were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
For a year marred by adversity and challenges in the field of health worldwide, 2020 ended on a rather optimistic note when it came to Hepatitis C eradication.
In their speech at the award ceremony, the Nobel committee hailed the breakthrough that the team made, by discovering the disease in 1989, in the continual battle against viral diseases, and gave it credit for finding treatments for a disease that has eluded satisfying solutions for decades.
“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating HCV from the world population,” the committee said.
Renowned scientific publications celebrated the acknowledgment of the breakthrough, most notably the LANCET.
The medical journal published an article on 29 October by the director of the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination stating: “HCV is curable, as shown in Egypt and Georgia,” calling for the philanthropic community around the world to “rally around this Nobel Prize, commit the financial resources, and eliminate HCV.”
Nobel Laureates’ previous discovery of HCV was definitely a breakthrough triumph in the continuing battle against viral diseases.
The discovery made blood testing possible and enabled giant pharmaceuticals to manufacture new medications worldwide.
The first glimmer of hope for a comprehensive treatment came in 2014, saving in the following years the lives of millions of people infected with HCV.
At one point in time, Egypt had the highest number of HCV patients worldwide, with an estimated 10 percent of the population infected with HCV, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Before 2015, Hepatitis C accounted for 40,000 deaths per year in Egypt—7.6 percent of all deaths in the country.
However, in 2014, a presidential-sponsored national screening campaign was launched with the goal of reaching an Egypt free of HCV by 2020.
More than four million people were treated with the drug Sovaldi (Generic name Sofosbuvir), and waiting lists started dwindling, leaving Egypt today almost HCV free.
Private sector pharmaceuticals in Egypt also played a pivotal role in the endeavor to eradicate Hepatitis C from the country.
In 2016, Pharco pharmaceuticals completed the largest phase III clinical trial on Genotype 4 HCV Egyptian patients,
The results if the trial were recognized by the annual conference of the liver associations, and Pharco started the local production of Sovaldi.
Sherine Helmy, Pharco CEO and sxecutive board member of the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination, told Ahram Online: “the Nobel Prize for the discovery of HCV is a great milestone in our human journey."
"We started to reap some fruits from the laureates’ efforts and the collective efforts of scientists and the medical industry across the world, we now proudly have Egypt as a country free of HCV."
The Egyptian government negotiated a landmark agreement which dramatically reduced the price of Sovaldi, which – in combination with other drugs – can cure HCV in up to 97% of all cases.
Helmy added that in this time of global medical crisis, there is hope that Egyptian experience can be transferred across the world, particularly to low- and medium-income countries where diagnosis and access to affordable treatment is a challenge.
Egypt is a role model for HCV eradication, but there is still more that 67 million lives worldwide that need to be treated.
According to the WHO, death rates from HCV have surpassed 500,000 annually, and more than 71 million people live with the virus. The estimate by WHO is that 1.5 million lives can be saved in the next 10 years with proper diagnosis and treatment.
The recent celebration of the Nobel Laureates keeps that hope afloat.