Painful Truth: No one has ownership of drugs

Why not make money off of human misery? Business is business, right?

If you needed a prescription for a drug called Daraprim, up until very recently things weren’t that bad for you, at least financially.

Daraprim was developed in the early 1960s, by Gertrude Elion, a pioneering biochemist whose work paved the way for, among other things, an entire common class of anti-HIV drugs used today.

Daraprim was developed to fight malaria, but is now mostly used to deal with toxoplasmosis, a nasty parasite that can be very dangerous for people with compromised immune systems.

Until recently, it sold here in Canada for a little over $80 for a bottle of 50 pills. That includes the pharmacy dispensing fee.

It was more expensive in the U.S., going for $13.50 per pill. But hey, if you had insurance or qualified for Medicare or Medicaid, it wouldn’t be that bad!

Currently, if you don’t qualify as a hard luck case, Daraprim costs $750 per pill.

Nope, not a typo.

That means that given the extended nature of treatment, the price would be between $336,000 and $634,000 for a complete course. (In a belated attempt to gain back some good will, the drug makers are emphasizing that they’ll supply the drug cheap-to-free to poor patients.)

Why so expensive? Because of a vicious weasel of a human being called Martin Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager who decided to get into pharmaceuticals. This is the second time that he’s run the same plan: Buy up the rights to an old and established but uncommonly used drug, jack up the price, wait for the cash to roll in.

His previous company ousted him, and he promptly formed a new one and bought up the rights to Daraprim.

This kind of predatory pricing is hitting a wide variety of drugs.

In another case from just weeks ago, a tuberculosis treatment was acquired, and raised in price from $480 to $10,800. That company had to back down after drawing the wrath of, among others, Hillary Clinton.

It isn’t just one firm or a few bad apples, although Shkreli’s unapologetic online feuding with his critics has made him the lightning rod. Firms from Canada and California have also practiced predatory pricing.

The excuse executives give? They need the money to pay for the costs of developing new drugs.

New drug development is expensive. But it’s also an opaque process, and the price charged may or may not have much bearing on the amount spent on the drug itself.

What pharmaceutical executives also don’t like to mention is the mountain of public research atop which they have built their fortunes.

Research done at universities and by charitably funded institutions provides the building blocks for many new breakthroughs, and the pharmaceutical firm that takes the last few steps gets to reap all the financial benefits.

When it comes to drugs and medication, separating out the public and private spending is impossible. All scientists stand on the shoulders of giants. Medicine today is informed by centuries of discovery, which has taken us from believing we were governed by the “four humours” to germ theory, from bleeding patients to isolating the human genome. No one firm can point to any drug and say “We did all the work.” The work was the labour of generations. There is no justification for allowing a single company to gain all the benefits and complete control, not only over the financial revenues, but over the lives and health of others.



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