In September 2015, Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, was the object of worldwide anger when he announced that the price of the drug Daraprim was being raised from $13.50 a dose to $750. Shkreli, according to the The Daily Beast, became the most hated man in America. Daraprim is used to treat malaria and is the standard medication for toxoplasmosis, a food-borne illness that attacks people with weakened immune systems, such as those on chemotherapy and those with HIV or AIDS. It is considered an essential drug by the World Health Organization.
Recently, a two dollar version of the pill was created by a group of high school science students in Sydney, Australia. They were looking for a chemistry project and got together with chemist Dr. Alice Williamson of the University of Sydney who thought this would be a great project. The students were eager. “Working on a real world problem definitely made us more enthusiastic,” said Austin Zhang, 17. James Wood, also 17, agreed, saying “The background to this made it seem more important.”
Deaths from malaria can reach one million a year, mostly among young children. The University’s Open Source Malaria Consortium works to use available drugs and treatments for malaria in greatly impacted areas.The students started with 17 grams of (4-chlorophenyl) acetonitrile, the raw ingredient, which can be purchased online at $36.50 for 100 grams. They then went through a number of steps guided by their teacher, Dr. Malcolm Binns. They were not allowed to use the same chemical route as Daraprim’s because it is considered too dangerous. However, they found an alternate route to reach the goal, which was pyrimethamine, the chemical name for Daraprim.
The boys made 3.7 grams of the pyrimethamine, which, based on Shkreli’s inflated price, would equal $110,000 in the US. You can buy 50 tablets (25 mg dose) for $12.99 in Australia. In India, a dose goes for 10 cents. Many Americans are angry that prices of drugs are way above those of other countries. Why this unfairness? Consortium founder and associate professor Matthew Todd explains, “While the drug is out of patent, Turing Pharmaceuticals controls its distribution and sale through a loophole called the ‘closed distribution model’. To take the drug to market as a generic, you need to compare it to Turing’s product. If Turing won’t allow the comparisons to take place, you’d have to fund a whole new trial.” And that may cost millions, or even a billion, and costs are still rising.
Another example in the US is the cancer drug imatinib, which costs $146,000 for a year’s supply. In India, the cost is $400. Novartis Pharmaceuticals, the owner of the patent, is allowed to sell it as a way to regain the costs of development. The company lost its patent in India in a court case. Drug companies not only have high research and development costs, but they also spend a huge amount on marketing. New medications and treatments are usually more expensive than those they are replacing, but heavy marketing can lead to unnecessary extra treatments.
Martin Shkreli, now the former CEO of Turing, reacted to the boys’ success by issuing a Twitter tirade: On November 30, he tweeted, “Yeah, uh, anyone can make a drug it is ez.” On December 1: “These kids who made Daraprim remind me of Ahmed who ‘made the clock.’ Dumb journalists want a feel-good story.” Also on December 1: “Labor and equipment costs? Didn’t know you could get physical chemists to work for free. I should use high school kids to make my medicines.”
Yet the same day, he made a YouTube video praising the boys for their work and interest in chemistry. Yet the next day, more angry tweets came. “Taking questions on this Australian bull—t.” Also, “Australians mostly calling in to apologize for their country.” One of the students, Leonard Milan, responded, “I think Martin is an attention-seeking businessman” who doesn’t consider that there are “peoples’ lives and livelihoods at stake.”