Pharma profiteer jacked up prices for cancer treatments 5000% overnight, then karma came calling

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Price-gouging pharma CEO Martin Shkreli has been having a bad month. First, he become a pariah for buying the rights to a much-needed HIV and cancer medication then immediately jacking up the price by over 5000% (to $750 per pill). And now, because he is about to lose his shirt as a competitor has produced a similar drug for just $1.

Life-saving Daraprim is a drug is used to treat toxoplasmosis, a disease that can affect pregnant women, as well as patients with weakened immune systems. It is commonly associated with HIV/AIDS or cancer treatment. It’s ‘off patent’, meaning that a pharma company can step in and purchase the rights to it, if they are willing to pay enough.

Shkreli seized the opportunity to buy the little known drug for $55million. Experts have suggested that the reason he jacked up the cost from $13.50 to $750 per pill, is to cover his investment costs. It’s worth noting that this is not a new phenomenon –  other pharma companies also behave in this way. For them price hikes offer a way to boost profits – presumably from those who are insured – without years of costly, risky research to find new medicines. It’s ‘zombie economics’ at its finest.

In a country where medical insurance is not available as part of many people’s employment, this act effectively holds wealthier, insured patients at gunpoint and robs them in full daylight, potentially pushing up their premiums. It leaves poorer patients without a vital means of managing their illness.

However, helps is at hand in the shape of San Diego-based pharmaceutical company Imprimis, which announced last Thursday that it would provide a low-cost, compounded alternative to Daraprim, containing the same active ingredients, but this new version would cost in the region of $1 per pill.

What’s more, Imprimis is not stopping there. The young company also plans to start making inexpensive versions of other generic drugs that have been affected by the same price gouging phenomenon said their Chief Executive Mark Baum:

This is not the first time a sole supply generic drug – especially one that has been approved for use as long as Daraprim – has had its price increased suddenly and to a level that may make it unaffordable,” Baum said. ” In response to this recent case and others that we will soon identify, Imprimis is forming a new program called Imprimis Cares which is aligned to our corporate mission of making novel and customizable medicines available to physicians and patients today at accessible prices.”

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The fact that this is an issue at all points to a glaring hole in the US’s regulatory system where the pharmaceutical industry is concerned. The issue has inspired Hilary Clinton to promise to fight price gouging. Other Democratic candidates have put forth plans to combat this activity, but attempts to reform the industry have been resisted by the Republican-led Congress. The US remains the only country that does not regulate drug prices – this clearly needs to change.

Some have suggested the need for price capping or fixing to stop companies abusing the market and putting patients’ lives at risk. Until this happens however, Imprimis is taking a different strategy: they are working co-operatively with policymakers to support the availability of more competitively priced products. Baum goes on to say:

“We can reach a pricing equilibrium using competitive practices.  And we’ve gotta work with policymakers… to counterbalance the influences on the other side. To do what this Turing guy has done – he’s like a male version of Cruella de Vil.”

Shkreli’s immediate response to this was to attack Imprimis, branding their more viable approach to drug manufacture as a “publicity stunt” saying he “wishes them luck”. Bizarrely, he even thinks people will choose Turing’s ridiculously priced product over that of Imprimis. Interestingly, he has opened himself to the online community Reddit.com, where he has invited users to ‘AMA’ – ask me anything. If you want to let him know what you think of his behaviour, or to suggest alternatives, now’s your chance.

Featured image via Flickr Creative Commons

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