A leftist candidate for U.S. president, Bernie Sanders, does not want money from Martin Shkreli, a young businessman, who in order to make a quick and easy profit exceeded any possible limit of audacity.
The 32-year-old Shkreli became famous following the publication of a New York Times article, which explained how his Turing Pharmaceuticals in August bought the rights to Daraprim, a drug for toxoplasmosis, which is an infection caused by Toxoplasma gondii protozoa. For most people, it is completely harmless, but for patients with a weaker immune system — like toddlers or those with AIDS or cancer — it can be fatal. Therefore, Daraprim is a drug that can save somebody’s life.
The day after buying the rights to Daraprim, Shkreli increased its price from $13.50 to $750, which is nearly 50 times more. “We need to turn a profit on the drug,” explained the chief of Turing Pharmaceuticals on Bloomberg TV. “The former producers sold it nearly for free.”* Toxoplasmosis treatment requires taking around 100 tablets, so under the former price, the cost of saving a life was barely $1,350. In the meantime, some drug treatments for cancer, or other rare diseases, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Shkreli spoke with a smile and with the confidence of a Wall Street investment fund manager, which is what he was before shifting focus to the pharmaceuticals business. But his arguments, as experts said after The New York Times article came out, are total bullshit, or to say it in Polish, total bollocks.
Following Shkreli’s logic, antibiotics, which save lives — on a large scale at that! — should cost a fortune. By comparison, expensive cancer medicines save a lot fewer lives than those antibiotics. But they were produced thanks to expensive research that cost a lot of money. They have to be expensive so it is profitable for the pharmaceutical companies to do research.
In the meantime Daraprim is an old medicine, nearly as old as antibiotics. Patent rights for it expired in 1953. There is almost no need to invest in order to produce it. The production cost of one tablet, according to experts, is about $1!
When the scandal began, Shkreli promised to slightly lower the cost of the medicine, but he did not say by when or how much. It has been costing $750 already for two months, which means that after adding the pharmacy’s margin, Daraprim can be bought for about $800-$900 per tablet. Who pays for it? Most of the patients in U.S. are insured by private companies, so the companies pay or the state — if the sick person is over 65 years old or so poor that he is entitled to free medical care through the Medicaid program. As for the unlucky ones who are not insured (and there are around 30 million of those), if they have toxoplasmosis, they will get a five-digit bill, which they will either pay themselves or a repo man will try to get the value of it.
Naturally, Shkreli is not much bothered by it. “So far, in the USA, we have a rule that the medicine producer decides himself how much it should cost,”* he happily explained on CBS television.
And as if he were not famous enough, a couple of days ago, he did something shocking to even more emphatically show all his critics the middle finger.
What move was it? Namely, the Turing Pharmaceutical chief gave $2,700 to the election campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a socialist and condemns abuses in the pharmaceutical business. $2,700 is the highest sum allowed for a private person to sponsor a presidential candidate. Sanders is the sensation of the election campaign according to polls in the Democratic Party nomination race; he is second after Hilary Clinton, but in some states, he is ahead of her.
At the beginning, Sanders’s staff did not realize they had such an unexpected donor because in total, 650,000 Americans had already donated money (usually dozens of dollars). But on Tuesday, Shkreli boasted on Twitter that he sponsored a senator. On Friday, the candidate’s spokesman, Michael Briggs, announced that the $2,700 would be donated to Whitman-Walker Health in Washington.** “He is the poster boy for pharmaceutical company greed. We don’t want his stinkin’ money,” he explained.
For years, Sanders has been pointing out reasons why pharmaceutical companies do whatever they want — first, the ban on importing drugs from abroad. It does not only apply to importers but also to private people. In the U.S., it’s only permitted to take drugs produced in-country and which are approved by the FDA. There are many cheap alternatives (also of Daraprim), but hospitals and doctors in the U.S. are not allowed to give them to patients because they are not certified.
In 1999, Sanders, who was then a member of the House of Representatives, organized a trip of retired people to Canada. He put them on buses and went with them to buy drugs on the other side of the border — exactly the same as the American ones, but much cheaper. Unfortunately, this outing did not bring about results.
Barack Obama planned on removing the ban at first through his health care reform, but he was forced to withdraw under pressure from the pharmaceutical lobby (”progressive” Democrats like Sanders were saying at that time that the president had ”betrayed” them, but without this compromise, the reform bill did not have a chance of being accepted by Congress).
If it is not possible to import medications from abroad, then why, one might wonder, will any of the American companies (other then Turing Pharmaceuticals) not start producing an alternative of Daraprim in the U.S.? It has not been protected by patent for more then 60 years. If there was competition, the cost would no doubt get lower.
This is apparently true, but first, the new producer would have to get a new medication certificate from the FDA in Washington. Waiting for such a certificate takes approximately three years. In the meantime, using his monopolist position, Shkreli would earn hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s worth mentioning that Sanders, the most famous socialist in America, in this case only wants to introduce the rules of capitalism — that is, an open medicine market in the U.S. In the meantime, Shkreli, although he seems to be a wild, ruthless capitalist, is actually just a smart-ass taking advantage of the fact that in the U.S. — at least in the medicine market — there is no open market, that is, there is no capitalism.
* Editor’s Note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.
** Editor’s Note: Whitman-Walker Health is a community health center that specializes in LGBT+ health issues and HIV/AIDS care.