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Does Criticizing Big Pharma Actually Help Bring Down Drug Prices? Is Real Change Possible?

Pills with Twenty Dollar Bills

Photo by Chris Potter

Unfortunately, public scrutiny about high drug prices doesn’t usually lead to legislative fixes, such as passing legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry and expand the practice of safe personal drug importation so more consumers access lower prices from foreign pharmacies. On the other hand, a New York Times article – “Even Talking About Reducing Drug Prices Can Reduce Drug Prices” – suggests, well, that “talking about” drug prices can reduce them, because pharma executives get scared that if they don’t moderate drug prices, more permanent and progressive fixes will finally happen.

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Daraprim’s Cost is Bizarre: So Save 99.8% Buying from a UK Pharmacy

Martin Shkreli trying to look cool

Martin Shkreli, founder and chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Not that cool.

It’s no secret that Americans are unhappy with Big Pharma. Pharmaceutical companies regularly rank as one of the least loved industries, right up there (or down there) with Big Oil and Big Government. And while this has usually been expressed as contempt towards the industry as a whole, recently the negative spotlight is shining brightly on one man: Martin Shkreli, hedge fund investor and drug company entrepreneur.

Soon after his company Turing Pharmaceuticals purchased the marketing rights to the drug Daraprim, Shkreli raised the price of Daraprim from $13.50 per pill to $750.00 per pill in the U.S. market where Turing has exclusive marketing rights. But that only affects America! Thankfully, consumers can purchase Daraprim, marketed by GlaxoSmithKline in the UK, from a verified international online pharmacy for as low as only $1.53 per pill. A mere savings of 99.8%.

Daraprim is used to treat toxoplasmosis, a disease that results from infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. This parasite is very common (in fact it’s been estimated that 22% of U.S. population have been exposed to it and it usually infects people who have eaten undercooked meat, raw vegetables, or have handled cat feces. In healthy people it usually only causes flu-like systems. However this disease can cause severe complications in people with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV or cancer, including brain lesions and seizures. The disease can also be very harmful to women who are pregnant, leading to a stillborn child or a child born with birth defects.

It’s not rare for medications that treat a rare disease or a small patient population to be expensive. Moreover, it’s understandable that pharmaceutical companies want to recoup the extensive costs of developing a drug and make a profit, although Big Pharma’s lust for profits appears insatiable. But let’s take a deep breath…Daraprim is not some new wonder drug. It was originally developed and marketed by Burroughs Wellcome and patented back in 1953 (the patent expired in the 70s). A relatively inexpensive drug, it was long manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, until that company sold the U.S. marketing rights to CorePharma in 2010. Impax Laboratories later bought CorePharma, and turned around and sold the rights to the drug to Turing.

At that point Mr. Shkreli and our friends at Turing decided to change how Daraprim was distributed. Hospitals, instead of going to a wholesaler, now had to order from Turing’s “Daraprim Direct” program. Patients, instead of going to their neighborhood pharmacy had to order from Walgreen’s Specialty Pharmacy. And since there is no approved generic in the United States, patients who need Daraprim face monopoly pricing, with no competition to Turing on the horizon.  Many people of all political stripes seem to be enraged over price gouging like this, because it seems like they’re getting the worst of corporate monopoly and government protectionism.

In order to get this medication, American consumers may need to look across the pond. As mentioned above, GlaxoSmithKline may have sold their U.S. marketing rights to Daraprim in 2010 but not in many countries around the world, such as England, where it’s sold for pennies to the pill!

It only seems fair, not to mention in the interest of public health, that an important drug like this, that’s listed on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, should not be one subject to the twisted reality and bizarre rationalizing of hedge fund managers.

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