Thanks to the efforts of former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, a medication used by certain HIV patients has jumped in price overnight last month from $13.50 per tablet to $750 per tablet.
The exorbitant leap in price for Daraprim came after Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals purchased the rights to the drug for $55 million. Daraprim is used to treat toxoplasmosis, an opportunistic infection, which can be deadly in certain patients, including those whose immune systems are already compromised — like people with HIV and those battling certain kinds of cancer. Pyrimethamine is listed in World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system. It has been on the market since 1953.
Shkreli claims Turing will use the extra money it gets from increasing the price of Daraprim to develop better treatments for toxoplasmosis. According to Raw Story, Shkreli said, “This isn’t the greedy drug company trying to gouge patients, it is us trying to stay in business. He also defended the price hike by saying many patients use the drug for far less than a year and that the new price is similar to other drugs used for rare diseases, and claimed “It really doesn’t make sense to get any criticism for this.”
But some doctors are more skeptical. Dr. Wendy Armstrong, professor of infectious diseases at Atlanta’s Emory University, said, “I certainly don’t think this is one of those diseases where we have been clamoring for better therapies.”
And Dr. Judith Aberg, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, asked, “What is it that they are doing differently that has led to this dramatic increase?”
Aberg told USA Today that even patients with insurance could have trouble affording the medication because insurance companies often put high-price drugs in the “specialty” category, requiring patients to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. Patients whose insurance plans require them to pay 20 percent of the cost would have to pay $150 a pill.
According to AIDSMap.com, Daraprim — scientific name pyrimethamine — “is an approved antibiotic used in combination with a sulphonamide drug such as sulfadoxine for the treatment of toxoplasmosis. It also has anti-malarial activity, and is used in combination with sulfadoxine to prevent and to treat malaria. Pyrimethamine has also been studied as a preventive treatment for Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) and toxoplasmosis in HIV-positive patients. However, it is now more commonly used in combination with other drugs, including dapsone, sulfadoxine or folinic acid as prophylaxis. For people who cannot tolerate cotrimoxazole (Septrin), it may also be used on its own or in combination with folinic acid or sulfadoxine to treat isosporiasis and prevent relapses.”
This isn’t Shkreli’s first brush with controversy involving pharmaceuticals. He started the hedge fund MSMB Capital while in his 20s and was accused of urging the FDA to not approve certain drugs made by companies whose stock he was shorting.
In 2011, Retrophin, a biotechnology company dedicated to creating treatments for orphan diseases, was created and run from the offices of MSMB Capital as a portfolio company. Shkreli was fired by the board of Retrophin and replaced as CEO by Stephen Aselage in September 2014. The company then filed a $65 million lawsuit against Shkreli in August this year, claiming he breached his duty of loyalty to the biopharmaceutical company in a long-running dispute over his use of company funds.
But while Shkreli was still CEO, Retrophin bought the rights to thiola, used to treat a rare disease called cystinuria, and then jumped the price up about 20-fold.