NHS England has agreed to invest a whopping £190 million this year in new treatments for hepatitis C, so that patients with liver cirrhosis can finally get NHS access to AbbVie’s new interferon-free antiviral regimen as well as Gilead’s Sovaldi and Harvoni, and thus hope for a cure.

Viekirax (ombitasvir/paritaprevir/ritonavir) and Exviera (dasabuvir) have actually been available in the UK since January 2015. But, because they are yet to receive funding approval from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, patients have not been getting access on the NHS, despite being at greatest risk of serious harm from a delay in treatment. 

NICE backed the use of Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), as part of combination therapy, to treat genotypes 1-6 chronic hepatitis C in February, but patients were also left waiting for access to this drug as NHS England requested extra time to allow it to ensure that necessary funding arrangements are in place for the treatment. Harvoni (ledipasvir/sofosbuvir) was recommended for NHS use in March.

It is estimated that NHS England’s interim commissioning policy should help around 3,500 HCV patients with cirrhosis receive treatment with Viekirax, Exviera and Sovaldi by the end of the year, offering a potential cure and prevention of further liver damage. 

Welcoming the move, Charles Gore, chief executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said “finally, the sickest HCV patients will have a chance to access these highly efficacious, curative therapies that are generally well tolerated,” but he also stressed that it’s “critical” to implement the policy quickly so that eligible patients “at risk of serious health issues or even death without treatment can get rid of the virus”.

Geoffrey Dusheiko, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UCL Institute of Liver and Digestive Health and Royal Free Hospital, said the policy is “long-overdue but welcome”, but also lamented that other patients in whom prevention of cirrhosis is equally important are still being left without access to these drugs.

“Only by all stakeholders in this field collaborating to find innovative ways to fund treatment and structure sustainable care pathways, will access in tandem for those without cirrhosis be possible, and our ambitions to eliminate this often fatal disease realised,” he noted.