NewsTeam 10 Investigates


Drugmaker accused of withholding safer meds from HIV patients, San Diego man speaks out

Posted at 11:34 AM, Nov 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-05 14:34:55-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - For the first time, a San Diego man is speaking out about an HIV medication that he and thousands of others say left them with horrible side effects like bone loss and kidney problems.

ABC 10News has the details of the lawsuit that was filed against the California-based pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences, accusing the company of withholding a safer medication for years to maximize profits.

Tyreese Buchanan used to be a singer who'd perform on stage, but those days are over. “It hurts your pride. It's really bad,” he told ABC 10News. The Bay Terraces man can barely walk. “[It’s] like someone stabbed me with a butcher knife in my hip,” he explained. There's also kidney failure and tooth loss, he said. He rarely makes it out of his home.

“The story hasn't really gotten a lot of attention,” said attorney Beth Graham. She and colleague Adam Gomez are part of a team of attorneys who are representing Buchanan and several other clients. “Clients who have literally broken bones [while] walking upstairs. Not going downstairs. [They were] walking upstairs or biting into an apple and breaking their jaw,” added Gomez.

They're blaming these injuries on a type of HIV medication from Gilead Sciences, which denies any wrongdoing.

“It was simply a business decision to garner the most in terms of profits,” said Graham.

Buchanan decided to go on camera with ABC 10News to discuss the lawsuit that was filed against Gilead Sciences, which is headquartered in Foster City and has an office in Oceanside. He's part of a group of thousands of people across the country who are taking the company to court.

“[There are] 21,000 individuals,” said attorney Amy Eskin. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed, many of which have been consolidated into one case with the same core allegations. Eskin is one of the attorneys who’s representing the clients with HIV in that case which concerns two versions of the HIV drug called tenofovir. One version is known as TDF and another version is known as TAF.

According to the main lawsuit, “Beginning in 2001, Gilead manufactured and sold a prodrug form of tenofovir called tenofovir disoproxil fumarate or TDF. Unbeknownst to plaintiffs and the general public, Gilead had also developed another prodrug form of tenofovir called tenofovir alafenamide fumarate or TAF, which it knew to be more efficacious and less toxic to kidneys and bones than TDF."

The attorneys who are helping to sue Gilead Sciences say that the company already got exclusivity rights on TDF and wanted to profit off that. “The core [allegation] is that Gilead, for-profit reasons, decided…in 2004 to shelve the safe drug. They knew it was safer and [they decided to] wait until the patent life had expired on the less safe drug and launch it as new and improved,” said Graham.

Buchanan was diagnosed with HIV in 2001. Graham said that he and thousands of others were at some point prescribed medications with TDF like Truvada and Viread which, the suit alleges, were more toxic.

“It's very unusual to see a company that had a safer alternative, knew it had a safer alternative and elected not to market it,” added Eskin.

According to the suit, "Gilead eventually applied for FDA approval of TAF for the first time in or about 2015, after maintaining an exclusive and extremely profitable monopoly on TDF for some 15 years." The suit goes on to read, "As a result, hundreds of thousands of HIV-infected patients, as well as patients taking the drug prophylactically, were exposed to a more toxic form of the drug for more than a decade."

The legal teams say that some of the evidence is bound by a protective order until trial, but Graham explained, “We have discovered many documents that are publicly available.”

ABC 10News found some of those government records which illustrate that Gilead, according to the suit, knew it had a safer form of the drug back in 2000.

Court records show that the company generally denies all the allegations. It filed a motion to dismiss the case, but the judge said it could move forward.

This September, the vice president of Gilead's clinical development wrote a blog that was posted to where he rejected claims that the company delayed access to safer medications in the name of profit, explaining in part that in the early 2000s the company was smaller and had to make choices about where to invest its limited resources. Specifically, in 2004, when it reportedly set aside TAF because it hadn't been largely tested and the technology to economically prepare it at a commercial scale wasn't available, according to the blog. The piece also explains that as HIV patients began to live longer after taking TDF for nearly a decade, Gilead became aware of the possibility of longer-term side effects in some patients like kidney issues, which pushed the company to look at alternatives like TAF.

Gilead declined an interview but sent a statement reading, "For more than three decades, Gilead has been committed to developing and improving upon therapies that address unmet needs for people living with HIV. Ongoing collaboration with, and input from, the medical and advocacy communities have always played a key role in helping inform our development programs and decisions. Patient safety is of foremost importance to us and any implication that Gilead delayed the development of a drug known to be safer than TDF to maximize profits is false."

“It makes me mad. I get angry and I get upset,” said Buchanan’s partner, Demond Spencer. He said that he’s watched Buchanan’s painful decline as a helpless outsider. “It’s like wanting to do something for someone that you can't do. That you can't fix,” he added.

“It's ruined my life. I would not wish this on anybody,” said Buchanan.

Due to COVID court delays, the trial date has been pushed back. It is scheduled for next July.