The man who wants to ramp up the price of a vital drug to obscene levels is at it again. Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli announced that he wants to make as much money as he can off another drug that he recently purchased–and patients be damned.
Last month, Shkreli helmed a group that bought controlling interest in KaloBios Pharmaceuticals, an ailing biophramaceutical company based in South San Francisco. KaloBios’ stock surged based on forecasts that Shkreli would turn the company around; at the close of business on Friday, it was trading at $27.68 a share on NASDAQ. Shkreli installed himself as CEO. Last week, KaloBios bought the worldwide rights to benznidazole, one of the most common treatments for Chagas disease, a parasitic disease that can cause potentially fatal heart problems.
Benznidazole is used mostly in Latin America, where Chagas disease is most prevalent. It hasn’t been approved for the open market in the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control provides the drug free of charge to patients on an experimental basis. In a conference call with KaloBios investors, Shkreli said that if the Food and Drug Administration clears KaloBios to market benznidazole in the United States, he will sell it at roughly the same price as drugs for hepatitis C–or roughly $60,000 to $100,000 for a typical course of treatment. By comparison, benznidazole costs the equivalent of $50 to $100 for a typical course of treatment.
Do the math–if Pharma Bro gets his way, the price of this drug would go up at least a thousand-fold. He wants to make an even bigger killing than he would make if he goes through with his plan to jack up the price of Deraphim, an anti-parasitic drug frequently given to AIDS patients. Two weeks ago, Shkreli announced that he still plans to raise Deraphim’s list price from $13 per pill to $750 per pill. However, he wants to offer discounts to hospitals that would drop the price most patients would pay to $375 per pill–still pretty outrageous by any definition.
In a colossal understatement, Sheba Meymandi, director of a Chagas treatment center at UCLA, says that Shkreli’s planned price increase has her colleagues around the world “in an uproar.” Some 300,000 people in this country have Chagas disease, nearly all of whom are Latino immigrants who had the disease when they came to this country.
According to Meymandi, most of those patients are poor and don’t have medical insurance, so Pharma Bro’s planned thousand-fold increase in the price of benznidazole could be “pretty devastating” to them. It’s even more so considering what this disease can do to you. Chagas disease is spread by the bite of the kissing bug, an insect found from the southern United States to northern Argentina. The first phase of the disease can cause fever or other complications, though most people don’t show any symptoms. However, the parasite can linger in the body for years before flaring up again. When that happens, people can experience problems with swallowing and defecating, and in extreme cases can have heart problems.
Shkreli’s proposal isn’t just immoral, but also may not make any economic sense. Shkreli claims that as many as 7,000 people will need treatment for Chagas disease each year. But the CDC’s Susan Montgomery says that there have been a grand total of seven acute cases of Chagas disease since 1955. She also noted that the CDC provides 60 to 70 courses of treatment per year for Chagas disease. Based on those figures, Robert Gilman of Johns Hopkins University thinks that “at the current rate of diagnosis,” Pharma Bro won’t have a market for benznidazole.
Why would Shkreli pull such an outrageous stunt? I have one theory. Three months ago, his former company, Retrophin, sued him, alleging that he looted its coffers to pay his own personal debts and those of his investment firm. So Shkreli may be trying to pay his legal bills on the backs of innocent patients–many of whom are destitute. Even if that isn’t the case, what Shkreli is doing is beyond obscene, and he needs to be derailed by all legal means possible.