Turing chief’s publicized personal spending habits further aggravate patients and their doctors
An American entrepreneur with an estimated net worth upwards of nine figures recently paid $2 million for a music album of new songs by the hardcore hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, of which only one copy was made available for sale, says the website of the British newspaper The Independent.
Though a repugnant revelation, many familiar with the exploits of 32-year-old Big Pharma executive Martin Shkreli will not be surprised that he was the purchaser of the ultra-exclusive rap record. (Shkreli has previously boasted publicly about, among other things, spending $9,000 on a bottle of wine.)
As reported in the New York Times, coinciding with the Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO’s opulent music buying, Shkreli is also making headlines for “once again provoking alarm with a plan to sharply increase the price of a decades-old drug for a serious infectious disease. This time the drug treats Chagas disease, a parasitic infection that can cause potentially lethal heart problems.”
“It’s caused a lot of angst in the Chagas community,” Dr. Sheba Meymandi, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of a Chagas treatment center at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center told the Times. “Everyone’s in an uproar.”
The New York daily elaborated: “The plan also is upsetting some organizations that supply drugs for neglected diseases, because Mr. Shkreli has said he wants to take advantage of a federal program intended to encourage companies to develop such drugs. The program awards vouchers that can be sold to other companies for hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Shkreli plans to obtain such a voucher by getting the Chagas disease drug FDA approved by for sale in the United States. “Critics say that it would be another case of the system being abused by awarding a voucher not for developing a new drug but merely for obtaining FDA approval of a drug already used in tropical countries,” according to the Times.
Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager, declined to comment on this latest controversy.
In September, his company acquired the rights to a 62-year-old drug for toxoplasmosis, another parasitic infection, and raised its price overnight to $750 a pill from $13.50. This set off a nationwide “furor,” according to the New York Times.
Though never approved for sale in the U.S., benznidazole is provided free to patients by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on an experimental basis.
In Latin America, benznidazole costs $50 to $100 for the typical two-month course of treatment.
The new price would be “pretty devastating,” Dr. Meymandi of UCLA told the Times. “The people with Chagas for the most part are poor” and many lack insurance, she said.
Experts have expressed doubt as to whether there are enough diagnosed cases of Chagas in the U.S. to warrant making it available commercially here. “The only reason for him to do this is to get the voucher and turn around and sell it,” Dr. Caryn Bern, a Chagas disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco told the Times.
In any case, it’s time for the FDA to wake up to the fact that it functions in a capitalist nation where ethics are often optional and to put in place safeguards against abuses such as Shkreli’s.