Professor Schinazi saluted President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s efforts making the testing and treatment of the disease a national priority and for helping African nations to overcome the disease.
Ahram Online: Would you please tell us about the purpose of your visit to Cairo?
Raymond Schinazi: As you know I was born and raised in Egypt; I have Egyptian culture in my veins and I am always happy to come back whenever I am invited. I am here this time for the Africa Health ExCon. This an important event for Egypt and Africa; that is why even with the COVID pandemic I decided to come and give a talk in the conference. I hope during my visit, I can talk with the pharmaceutical companies and see how I can help to diversify access to new COVID treatments. Recently my lab invented a drug that is called Baricitinib; it is an anti-inflammatory agent and it is approved for treating COVID in the US and the world. This drug is used for the patients who are on oxygen and treated in hospitals
AO: How do you see misleading information about the origin of COVID and the arguments about the vaccine efficacy?
RS: First of all, the origin of the COVID virus has been found in nature not in laboratory. It does not really matter who is responsible for the pandemic, the key thing is that the researchers are collaborating globally. Currently, the available solutions are vaccines that have short durability but have saved lives. There are also several new drugs that are effective in curing people and reducing health complications.
AO: How do you see the Egyptian journey in fighting hepatitis C since the FDA approval of your drug Sovaldi in 2013 till now?
RS: When I came to visit Egypt in 2013, I was invited by the government to discuss how we could solve the problem of hepatitis C specially with the advent of Sovaldi that my lab invented and we sold it to Gilead pharmaceutics. At that time the drug was extremely expensive (more than $64,000 per treatment). I helped the government to negotiate with Gilead to reduce the price of the treatment to $1,000. Then I worked with an Egyptian company and shared some of the chemicals which lead to locally producing the generic drug of Sovaldi which was excellent as a quality drug. This step helped to reduce the pricing of the treatment. Fortunately, the pharmaceutical industry in Egypt came to the rescue and produced high quality generic drugs which led to price reduction to nearly $100 and the treatment became much more accessible in Egypt.
The real brilliance of what has been achieved here is due to the vision of President El-Sisi. He realised very early that he has a solution to a major problem. President El-Sisi has done a magnificent job by making hepatitis c testing and treatment a priority in Egypt. He also promoted health campaigns in Egypt and Africa. I raise my hat to him for doing what other governments have not done. The concept of test and treat that Egypt implemented was very important to cure millions of citizens of hepatitis c and I am very proud for being part of that national success.
AO: What would you say about the members of the national committee for control of viral hepatitis?
RS: They were the iceberg breakers; they are passionate about their work and they really care about the children and the patients with hepatitis c. The doctors who implemented that program are national heroes. That project is a lighthouse for the rest of the world. The success of implementing a large-scale program for curing patients has not been done before. This is the first time in the history of human beings that such a program has been implemented to cure millions of citizens with an antiviral drug. The country Georgia is following the footsteps of the Egyptian committee to treat their patients, some states in America like Louisiana are beginning a health program for hepatitis c similar to what has been done in Egypt.
AO: What should be the current role of that committee after disease elimination?
RS: I think the most important step now is to make sure that the younger generation is not infected with the virus, through screening programs in schools and treating them as quickly as possible. It is important as well to screen and treat the families of the infected children. Highly vulnerable groups like doctors, dentists and patients who regularly visit hospitals should be tested and treated if they were found positive. That step will reduce any new infections. Egypt should develop its own diagnostic tests that are reliable and robust which allows any person to go into a pharmacy and check if he or she is positive or not. This is something that can be done very quickly and as you know, there is no vaccine for hepatitis c, so to save lives and reduce the viral progression and transmission, people should test themselves and get their treatment.
AO: Why is there no vaccine for hepatitis C?
RS: It is very hard to develop such a vaccine. There is a tremendous number of mutations, it is much more difficult than what we see now with COVID. Scientists tried several times to create vaccines but all of them failed. It is not expected to create a vaccine any time soon, that is why the drug is the only way now to treat patients.
AO: Currently, there are local studies about treating children with hepatitis c, four years and older, what is your take on that?
RS: I love that approach; it breaks a lot of taboos that were in the old days about the negative impact of antiviral drugs on sick children and pregnant women. Now, we treat them and we are able to reduce viral transmission from mother to child for a disease like HIV to zero. I am quite sure that if we adjust the doses and treat the children, we reduce the propagation of the disease and the possible health complications. Same with COVID, if we facilitate the access to vaccination and treatment for everybody especially in the poorer nations, we will be able to suppress the virus and its mutations because dead viruses do not mutate.
Raymond Schinazi is an American medicinal chemist with expertise in pharmacology, and biotechnology. He was born in 1950 in Alexandria. In 1964, his family immigrated to Naples, Italy. He received his PhD in Chemistry and DSc in Biotechnology from the University of Bath, England. His research focuses on developing treatments for viral diseases like HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.