Pill Power Play

Eric-flickr-creativecommonsACT UP has inspired many AIDS activists to protest the costs and accessibility of drugs to treat HIV, especially in the 80s and early 90s when so little was available. Die-ins were a regular thing at AIDS conferences and they grabbed news headlines.

People hit the floor then; they’ve added social media now.

Turing Pharmaceuticals has been in the news this week for increasing the cost of Daraprim by 5000%. Turing CEO Martin Shkreli bought rights to the drug and then increased the cost per pill from $13.50 to $750. Daraprim is used to treat toxoplasmosis, an HIV related infection that isn’t as common in Canada these days as it used to be due to excellent treatment options that keep immune systems strong. But it is a threat to some, and certainly to folks in areas that don’t have the same access to treatment.

Luke Timmerman penned a good timeline of the drug drama. There’s a lot of legal yelling back and forth about Shkreli’s conduct at a former company (where he also hiked drug prices, but only by 2000%) and the response from a reporter Shkreli called “a moron” on Twitter: Why would Martin Shkreli hike an old drug price by 5000%? Only a ‘moron’ would ask.

Shkreli was quoted saying “I think I know more about toxoplasmosis than anyone in the world,” as he tried to justify the increase. Something more effective for toxo treatment could be developed he argues- Daraprim was invented in 1952 by Gertrude Elion (It was originally used to treat malaria).  An HIV doctor consulted about Daraprim says a new drug formula isn’t needed, although this is what Shkreli claims in an interview. I think a doctor wins over a finance man.

Pharmaceutical companies are regularly criticized over costs. Controversy over the high costs of new (and extremely effective) Hepatitis C treatment prompted debate not long ago. Questions of profit vs. ethics were rightly discussed.

New drugs are one thing; the primary beef with Turing Pharmaceuticals is that it’s price gouging on an old drug it just obtained. These ownership transfers and cost hikes are happening with many drugs. Companies scout out older drugs, buy them, and then raise the prices significantly. The market system in the US makes this possible.

The drug pricing system in Canada is different from the US, but our drug costs are still influenced by the US. Drugs in Canada have price controls, but they are moderated by costs in other countries, a system that’s not sustainable, analysts suggest.  Currently ramping up is a battle between US drug company Alexion Pharmaceuticals and the Government of Canada. Alexion is suing the government for trying to lower the price of its drug in Canada, which costs $700,000 per year. It could dramatically change drug pricing in Canada if Alexion is successful. Many say it’s time for a national Pharmacare program.

This week’s fire over the costs of pharmaceuticals won’t be the last. Healthcare costs are rising, it costs significant money to develop new drugs,  and someone has to pay. The UN has called for governments and pharmaceutical companies to work together to ensure medicine is accessible and affordable. That has to be priority for the global health.

Image: Eric, Flickr (Creative Commons)