You sit face-to-face with a notorious public figure. “Hear me out,” he says.
Several hundred Harvard College students made their decision when Martin Shkreli made his appearance on campus two weeks ago and asked them the exact same thing. The former drug executive, who notoriously raised the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 per pill to $750, was invited by the Harvard Financial Analysts Club (HFAC) to speak to undergraduate students about investments and healthcare. Inevitably, his appearance sparked controversy--some students planned a peaceful protest, others pulled a fire alarm to trigger evacuation, and some attendees walked out after calling him a “sexual predator” and “racist.” Many also stayed.
Although important topics, today’s blog post will not discuss the integrity of the HFAC’s decision or form an opinion about the student reactions. Rather, we would like to take this opportunity to step outside of our predominantly liberal space to explore opposing opinions, gain knowledge, and think critically to develop a well-informed opinion.
While the majority of us want to immediately denounce Shkreli’s drug hike decision, there’s always two sides to a coin and it’s important that we explore his point of view and justification in raising the price. Throughout his many interviews with journalists, Shkreli pointed out a few ‘justifications’, one of them being raising the price of Daraprim for research and development purposes. He hopes to improve the current formulation of the drug and to develop new therapeutics since no significant advances into the disease have been made for a decade. But according to many physicians and professors, there is no need for new advancements, as the toxoplasmosis targeting drug works perfectly well (Fortune). So I guess it comes down to how much of that 5000% increase is actually going into R&D?
To shed some more light into the mind of Martin Shkreli, his ‘whole life has been one theme, of self sacrifice for his investors. He did [the price hike] for his shareholders’ benefit because that’s his job’. He continues saying that by charging $750 a pill to big companies like Walmart, it makes him feel like a hero since the money earned would go towards research for dying kids (The Guardian). So what if Shkreli is actually a robin hood in disguise? Taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Maybe we’ve had him wrong this entire time, maybe the media painted a nasty picture of him without hearing him out? To Shkreli, he certainly feels that’s the case.
During a casual lunch with a journalist, Shkreli expressed his concerns about the media and politicians that attacked him. He feels he became a target not because of what he did but because he was so easy to parody - essentially, he feels ‘misunderstood’ since other companies have jacked up drug prices with no consequences. Why should he get the blame when many other price hikes go unnoticed? How can you hate a person who says “I care more about drug science than anyone you can point at. I love this business and I love science and I hold my yardstick to that. I know I’m helping patients. That’s all I need to know” (Forbes).
To conclude, Turing pharmaceuticals’ actions should be no surprise at all, since one would be a fool to forget that pharmaceutical companies are profit-driven institutions. The issue is not the increased profits per se, but rather the use of these profits. While Shkreli claims that the increased profits from the price hike in Daraprim will support research and development of drugs, documents reveal that they are in reality being spent on lavish company celebrations and six-figure Turing executive salaries (the New Yorker).
What should be a surprise to us is what this reveals about the pharmaceutical industry. After Turing acquired rights to produce and sell Daraprim, it essentially became a monopoly for the drug in America. The reason for this was that there were insufficient policies and regulations in place to expedite the transition to generic drug production and promote competition. This serves as a critical warning of the fallacies in the regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, and by extension, emphasizes the importance of adopting more socially responsible patent and licensing policies to prevent the greedy hands of profit-minded executives from stripping helpless patients of essential medicines. If a roof leaks water after a heavy storm, who is to blame—the storm or the mason who constructed the roof? Shkreli is simply a scapegoat towards which the public is directing its anger. In reality, we should channel our concerns towards more critically evaluating the failure of the pharmaceutical industry.
Written by: Nancy Wu, Nabeel Mansuri, Kevin Fan
Nancy, Nabeel, and Kevin are currently in their third year of undergraduate studies at Western University and serve as Directors of the Access Committee