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PrEP Won’t Protect if it’s Priced Out of Reach

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Kenneth Mwehonge
Friday, December 9, 2016

Kenneth is a 2015 AVAC Advocacy Fellow, hosted by HEPS-Uganda. He works with both grassroots communities and national level stakeholders in promoting health and the rights of people living with HIV in Uganda by advocating for consumer friendly policies. He’s currently the head of HEPS-Uganda’s advocacy program, and coordinates the Uganda Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines.

The cost of providing new tools for preventing HIV infections like oral PrEP is concerning. I hear cries about the sky-high prices of these new prevention options all the time. Unfortunately, after the lament, there’s little conversation about reducing these high costs and enabling access. Access is defined by 4 A’s: Affordability, Acceptability, Accessibility and Availability. Lose any one of them and you lose access – and impact – altogether. For anything and everything you ever wanted to know about PrEP, including information about costs as it becomes available, checkout PrEPWatch.org.

Globally, we have 37 million people living with HIV, but only 50 percent of these are enrolled on treatment. That’s despite the landmark study, HPTN 052, that showed early initiation of antiretroviral treatment in people living with HIV with a CD4 count between 350 and 550, not only improved their health but also reduced HIV transmission to HIV-negative partners by 96 percent.

There is a lot of public taxpayer’s money invested in research and development of new tools for preventing, and managing HIV. No doubt, a lot of innovation and brain power goes into the development of these products and I salute that work. But let’s not forget the ultimate goal of an AIDS-free generation. This can only happen if people, irrespective of their location, gender, race, sexual and political orientation, have access to affordable commodities.

The irony is once these products are out, few can afford them.

The latest prevention option, oral PrEP, has been adopted in guidelines, or is in the process of being adopted, by several countries, both middle and low income, as a prevention option for people at substantial risk HIV infection. However, there are already concerns that the cost of PrEP may be a barrier to access, and that’s partly the reason officials are dragging their feet as they consider adding it to their package of prevention.

Pricing PrEP is still underway, but looking at cost for the delivery of antiretrovirals for treatment may give us an idea. A July 2016 analysis of three ART delivery models in Uganda, published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, showed that it costs $257 (facility-based model), $332 (a combination of community distribution and facility-based model) and $404 (community distribution model) to deliver ART annually per person. Like ART, the expectation is that most people taking PrEP will receive it for free, and if PrEP delivery costs about the same as ART delivery, this could be a big barrier to its access, especially for low income countries and populations at risk. Someone, somewhere, will have to pay, and $257 to $404 per person per year is quite a high cost.

As we prepare to deliver PrEP, we need to mirror the solidarity and teamwork exhibited when these products were developed. A multi-disciplinary collaboration between potential PrEP users, healthcare providers, government and funders should characterize how we make PrEP accessible to everyone who needs it.

In October, I attended the 2016 HIV Research for Prevention (R4P) Conference in Chicago. Being the only conference focused solely on biomedical HIV prevention, I was really looking forward to hearing new ways to address the access issues I highlighted above. Unfortunately, even here there was too little conversation about protecting public health interests over private commercial interests, which hike prices for new HIV prevention tools. I’m excited by the potential of PrEP to drive new infections down, but I worry that if the high cost of its delivery isn’t checked, PrEP may not realize this potential, especially not in the developing countries where it’s needed most.