Egypt has found a way to profit from the country’s access to cheap Hep C drugs by offering package holidays to tourists suffering from the disease, but the ‘tour and cure’ model raises numerous questions.
Egypt has a long history struggling with Hepatitis C (HCV) that started in the 1960s when a widespread vaccination campaign against schistosomiasis resulted in millions of villagers being infected with the disease from unsterile needles.
Because of this Egypt has the highest rates of Hep C in the world with 7 percent of the population infected, amounting to approximately 8 million people.
In the last five years, the country has dramatically changed the narrative of one of their most imminent public health threats thanks to intervention from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and a landmark deal with California-based Gilead Sciences in 2014. Under this agreement, Egypt was allowed to purchase their three-month course of Hep C medication, Sovaldi for USD 900 — a massive discount compared with the USD 84,000 then charged for the same treatment in the US.
The system put in place by Egyptian health officials ensured there would be no leakage of the drug to other markets. The entrepreneurial Egyptians, however, have found a way around this red tape.
Recently, the Egyptian program took one step further and came to rely on even cheaper alternatives to Sovaldi that are produced locally, with a three-month course of medication costing as little as USD 80. The success of Egypt’s Hep C program and access to extremely cheap cures are responsible for sparking these ventures into medical tourism.
On the back of these developments, Egypt’s Health, and Tourism and Aviation Ministries, in collaboration with Prime Pharma and its affiliate, Pharco Pharmaceuticals, an Alexandria-based generics maker, launched the Tour n’ Cure campaign back in June 2016. The campaign has encountered some success and the Government even managed to score soccer superstar, Lionel Messi as an ambassador for the campaign.
For around USD 7000, Tour ‘n Cure offers flights, a week’s stay at a five-star hotel in Cairo or Sharm el-Sheikh, blood tests, three months’ worth of treatment (which is completed upon the patients’ return to their own country), follow-ups and excursions to Egypt’s historic landmarks.
Although medical tourism can be beneficial to both patients and the countries profiting from foreign coin, one may question if these kinds of manoeuvres couldn’t be counterproductive as they may deter innovators like Gilead from entering into agreements with governments in need in the future.