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December 24, 2019updated 17 Dec 2019 4:50pm

PrEP drugs: is the NHS letting down patients at risk of HIV?

The efficacy of HIV-prevention drug PrEP is long-established, but access to the drug in England is restricted to participants on the NHS Impact Trial. At least 15 men who were waiting for trial places have acquired the lifelong disease – so how is limiting trial places for a crucial drug already proven to work justified?

By Chloe Kent

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a daily tablet- proven to prevent those taking it from contracting HIV. The drug contains two medicines, tenofovir and emtricitabine, which are also used to treat HIV infection. When taken each day at the same time, the drug provides a 92% – 99% reduction in HIV risk to those taking it.

However, England lags far behind the rest of the UK when it comes to PrEP. Access to the drug is restricted, and is only accessible through the NHS Impact Trial, which launched at the end of 2017 and currently has capacity for 26,000 total participants. NHS England supplies the drug to various participating local authorities, which ultimately control how the drug is distributed. Outside of England, PrEP is freely available for patients in Scotland and Wales.

According to the BBC, PrEP costs the NHS about £11 per patient, per month, but costs patients upwards of £30 a month should they decide to go private. In contrast, the antiretroviral drugs an HIV+ patient has to take cost the NHS between £100 and £500 per month per patient.

At least 15 people in England have now tested positive for HIV while waiting for a place on the Impact Trial, and commentators fear this may be just the tip of the iceberg. Several of these people were reportedly on low incomes and could not afford the drug privately. Had they lived elsewhere in the UK, they would have been able to obtain the drug from their GP or a local sexual health clinic.

Research by UK online doctor Zava has also found that 23% of trial sites are no longer accepting anymore gay or bisexual men at all, with the remaining spaces available specifically reserved for patients from other high-risk groups.

Zava clinical lead for service expansion Dr Babak Ashrafi said: “High-risk heterosexual groups do not tend to know about PrEP or engage with health services as well as men who have sex with men, so there are a higher proportion of available spaces for these groups.”

Postcode lotteries control access to the drug

National guidelines recommend PrEP for men who have sex with men and transgender women who have anal sex without using a condom. PrEP is also recommended for patients of other demographics if they have an HIV-positive partner who does not have an undetectable viral load, which occurs when antiretroviral treatment has reduced the quantity of the virus in their body to such low levels they can’t pass it on.

Recent migration to the UK and diagnosis of a recent rectal sexually transmitted infection (STI) are also factors that can be used to determine a patient’s eligibility for PrEP.

The drug’s efficacy is long established and the Impact Trial is taking place under the guise of assessing various logistical queries surrounding the distribution of the drug in England.

These include finding out how many people who attend sexual health clinics are at high risk of HIV, and thus eligible for PrEP, how likely people offered the drug are to accept it and how long they tend to use the medication for, as well as the impact of HIV and other STIs on the population.

But for patients at risk of HIV, a postcode lottery that makes the drug available through certain NHS jurisdictions and not others can be incredibly frustrating.

Daniel Bowen, a patient who attempted to access PrEP through the Whittall Street Umbrella Clinic, says: “I was told they would let me know if the trial was extended further – or if PrEP became more widely available on the NHS. Other than that, it will just be luck and how quickly I can get an appointment if they announce more trial spaces.

“I’m not working and can’t afford PrEP myself so I’ve had to learn to trust the men I have sex with, rather than being able to take the preventative measure myself. I know it might not make sense for people who don’t live the kind of lifestyle I do, but this is me feeling like I can’t do things I want to do, or participate in part of a gay subculture I identify with, because the risk is higher than it should be and I can’t predict my own behaviour in high risk situations.”

So, why is the Impact Trial even taking place when PrEP’s efficacy is already established?

Historical hangovers

British HIV Association (BHIVA) chair Dr Laura Waters says: “PrEP is indeed very efficacious at preventing HIV, but at the time that was established Truvada, the branded version of the drug used for PrEP, was very expensive. By undertaking a trial we were able to use the much less expensive generic version of the drug.”

Truvada is manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Gilead, which has long been under fire from HIV activists over its drug patents. When the European patent on Truvada expired in June 2017 the drug cost around €400 for 30 tablets across the continent. Gilead then attempted to extend the drug’s patent with a supplementary protection certificate (SPC).

SPCs are issued to compensate for delays to the marketing authorisation of drugs, and apply for 15 years after the date of first market approval, meaning Gilead would have had protection from PrEP-based competition until 2020. A group of generics manufacturers, including Accord Healthcare, swiftly began challenging Gilead’s protection against generic competition in court.

Different healthcare systems, such as NHS Scotland, took the risk of making generic PrEP freely available via GPs and sexual health clinics when the court case between Gilead and the generics manufacturers was still ongoing.

NHS England could have followed suit, but instead chose to offer patients a generic version of the drug through the Impact Trial. This removed the risk of legal action from Gilead, as supplying a generic version of a patent-protected drug is deemed acceptable in the context of a clinical trial, but meant it couldn’t be distributed as freely.

England’s High Court ruled the SPC invalid in September 2018, on the basis that is was not protected by the basic patent, but at this point the Impact Trial was well underway. As such, Impact is a partial vestige of historic patent law. PrEP’s reach in England is limited due to past decisions of regional healthcare bodies.

It all comes down to money

Clinics need to have the resources in place to support patients on PrEP throughout their treatment. People on PrEP still need to be tested for HIV and other STIs every three months and undergo intermittent kidney checks, alongside assessments of their ongoing HIV risk and the opportunity to talk about other methods of risk reduction.

Waters says: “Sexual health clinics have faced significant funding cuts so the trial is also about the feasibility of offering PrEP in real-life via the already over-stretched services.”

The local authority public health budget in the UK has been cut by £700m in real terms between 2014/15 and 2019/20, which has led to sexual health service budgets being cut slashed 25%. Meanwhile, demand for sexual health services rose by 15% between 2014 and 2018 and rates of STIs such as syphilis and gonorrhoea are skyrocketing. Alongside a patent law hangover, the trial exists to assess whether supplying PrEP to patients who need it is financially feasible under austerity.

In October 2019, the government announced that the local authority public health grant would increase by 1% in real terms in 2020-2021, but this is unlikely to make a substantial difference to the funding of sexual health services.

Terrence Higgins Trust PrEP lead Mark Lewis says: “We need to ensure that public health services – including sexual health services – are fully funded to meet local need, in order to tackle the soaring rates of STIs and to end new HIV transmissions by 2030.”

The Impact Trial is due to end in August 2020. The Department of Health says that work is underway to plan for a ‘seamless transition from the trial to routine commissioning’, but it’s currently unclear how exactly that will transpire and there are concerns that progress on working towards routine commissioning of PrEP is occurring too slowly.

“It’s likely the current model will be upheld for some time initially, with a strict inclusion criteria and secondary care ownership,” says Babak. “The only thing that is likely to change is that there won’t be any limits on spaces at any sexual health clinic if you’re eligible.”

While this discussion is purely speculative, the situation Babak describes would mean that patients who are unable, or unwilling, to attend follow-up appointments at a clinic on a regular basis would still be unable to access PrEP. It also means those who might want the reassurance of the drug but who don’t fully fit the eligibility criteria may find themselves turned away from NHS services.

In the meantime, patients at risk of HIV aren’t about to collectively alter their lifestyles until the drug becomes freely available. Limited access to PrEP has left them vulnerable to acquiring an easily preventable chronic disease, and struggling to accept that expired drug patents and a lack of resources are supposed to make this justifiable.

Bowen says: “We have enough evidence that PrEP is reducing the number of new diagnosed cases of HIV, and quite frankly that alone should be enough to motivate the NHS to fund the drug for anyone who wants it.”

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