The Demonization of Martin Shkreli
Remember the terrorist bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia? If you’ll recall (or follow the link and read), Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered the backpack containing the bomb, heroically warned people away and prevented it from creating a larger tragedy than the two lives it claimed. His hero status was short-lived, however, as he became the prime suspect. With only an accusation, his name was gleefully dragged through the mud by every mainstream news outlet at the time until he was eventually cleared by the FBI. Though ultimately vindicated, Jewell’s life was just about ruined.
The US media is always casting heroes and villains in their contrived narratives, packaged and delivered for the consumption of the common American nitwit, many of whom swallow it whole and then follow the lead by piling on in social media forums, twittering and facebooking and generally being the good hapless dupes that they are. The latest Bad Guy of the week is Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. As anyone reading this probably already knows, Shkreli has been demonized for buying the rights to an outdated drug, Daraprim, that treats a rare condition called Toxoplasmosis and jacking the price up 5000%. On the face of it, it sounds absolutely awful. Martin was excoriated in the public sphere as the worst kind of greedy exploitative capitalist scumbag, accused of holding a captive audience virtually hostage and making them pay a hefty ransom if they wanted to live (Toxoplasmosis is fatal if left untreated). And Martin did his image no favors, happily donning the costume of the evil caricature that was custom-tailored for him by the American press, a nice bespoke suit of fine villainy.
However, as with every story, there’s much more nuance here than is fathomed by the short-attention-spanned and feeble-minded MSM lapdogs reporting it. Thanks to the internet–and in this case, Martin’s proclivity to make himself accessible to anyone in the world by way of a series of YouTube livestreams–we can actually get his side of the story. Let’s investigate.
Martin claims his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, purchased Daraprim and jacked up its price in order to finance the development of a much more effective modern drug to treat Toxoplasmosis. The problems with Daraprim, as Martin explains, is that it’s very old (invented in the 1940s), it doesn’t work that well, and it’s toxic to bone marrow and can be as deadly to the patient as to the disease itself. There was no incentive to create a better drug because the disease was so rare, and there was already a cheap (if problematic) drug on the market to treat it, so it has mostly gone unnoticed in the pharmaceutical industry. Martin wants to replace Daraprim with a new drug that targets the enzyme that causes the disease without the bone marrow toxicity. To accomplish this, his plan is to raise the drug’s price from $13.50 to $750 per pill. At $750 per pill for an 84 pill course, the total cost is now $63,000 to cure the disease, which as Martin points is both rare and fatal. There are similar drugs on the marketplace (i.e. for other fatal ailments) that cost anywhere from $80,000-$130,000 per course, so Daraprim is still relatively cheap for a what is a life-saving medication. Martin explains that, while the price hike is indeed extreme, his company has made it easier for patients to get the drug by lowering the co-payment to “almost nothing”, with the insurance companies picking up the tab and, furthermore, that Turing gives away 60% of their Daraprim to patients who can’t afford it, leaving the company with a 40% gross margin. He says that nets out overall to $25,000 in profits for Turing per treatment course, virtually all of which goes back into R&D for a Daraprim replacement.
So, as the plan goes, by buying Daraprim and ramping up the price, Turing Pharmaceuticals will be able to use the profits to invent a new, more effective drug, while in the meantime being compassionate to Toxoplasmosis sufferers by making sure they can still get Daraprim affordably. He claims no one is dying as a result of the price hike and emphasized those who need it can still get it. Martin’s full explanation is nicely encapsulated in the following video:
I think the most likely reason people have a knee-jerk reaction to Martin and the price-hike is because he makes himself so easy to hate on, as is clearly demonstrated during his brief questioning before the House Oversight Committee earlier last year. He puts off an annoyingly smug self-confidence (a front, really, but in any event justified in my opinion) and the balls to tell a bunch of pompous, high-powered congressfags to fuck the fuck off with his repeated assertion of his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Drug companies are always raising prices on other more common drugs without a resulting media storm, but the thing is no one likes a smug asshole and Martin certainly plays the part all too well. When he’s not under the spotlight (as the video above and the one following below demonstrate) he otherwise gives off what I believe is the genuine demeanor of a slightly insecure nerd. The guy is clearly intelligent, highly so, but in the end, no one likes a smart ass, and so he was easy to demonize.
So, is Martin a bad guy? I don’t think so. In the interview above he states, “If you just raise prices and you don’t do the research, I think that’s wrong.” Of course anyone can say that, especially sociopathic CEOs, but I don’t think Martin is one of them, and I believe he’s sincere. Check out this Vice interview from a year and a half ago, just after he raised the price of Daraprim. While he still comes off as somewhat arrogant, he portrays a very different person than that of his more well-known public image:
In the interview, Martin is asked if he’s evil. He answers, “Am I evil? No. I think I’m the opposite of evil. …The reality is you’re talking to someone that cares deeply about helping peoples’ lives. I don’t like most drug companies. I think most of them do a bad job.” He goes on to say, “I’m a capitalist. I’d love to make an even bigger fortune than I have now, but I’m not going to do it at the expense of a human life. …We sell our drugs for a dollar to the government, but we sell our drugs for $750 a pill to Walmart, to Exxon-Mobile, to all these big companies, and they pay full price because, fuck them, why shouldn’t they? And if I take their money and I’m using it to do research for dying kids, I think I’m a hero.” Assuming he’s being genuine (I believe he is), and ignoring the minor self-aggrandizement, who can argue with that? From what I can see, Martin also possesses a certain humility and seems overall to be decent guy. I became interested in the brouhaha and spent time watching some of his recorded YouTube broadcasts last year. Here’s a CEO of a pharmaceutical corporation just hanging out in front of his computer and talking to anyone curious enough to come by on the internet and say hello and ask questions, or to tell him what a piece of shit they think he is. It was actually entertaining watching him dispatch prissy snowflakes who would come along to give him a piece of their mind, only to be savagely destroyed by his wit and logic. The first clip I linked above is the one that stood out above all. His explanation was clear, concise and logical. Upon seeing that, it became clear to me that Martin is just a good old shit-posting troll when he’s attacked, and has no problem playing the heel that he’s been cast into by the nattering nabobs of the MSM. “I’ll be the Bond villain!”, he cheerfully exclaims to the Vice interviewer. He certainly seems to be a firm believer in the adage that there is no such thing as “bad publicity”.
Here’s another clip of Martin being interviewed on CBS News in August of last year, at the time when Mylan raised the price of the EpiPen. No antics or smugness here, but a (if sometimes cringey) display of diplomacy and salesmanship:
In conclusion, I hope you’ll agree with me that Martin Shkreli has been demonized by the media (I would say “unfairly” but he really brought it onto himself, and he knows this), whereas the reality is a far cry from the shadows being cast. Notwithstanding the SEC charges he’s currently facing, once you realize that he’s not some heartless and cruel capitalist profiteering on other peoples’ illnesses and misery but rather a brash and highly intelligent young entrepreneur with what by all measures looks to be some good busy savvy, you can’t help but respect the man. I certainly do, and I wish him well.
I’m hoping once Shkreli gets past all this and successfully launches a replacement drug for Daraprim, he’ll turn his sights towards a cure for VD as it seems a good majority of our political and media class seem to be afflicted with late stage syphilis.
I am Chumbawamba.