Featured Image for Sydney’s chemistry students are ingenious, but ‘taking down’ Martin Shkreli isn’t a simple task
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Sydney’s chemistry students are ingenious, but ‘taking down’ Martin Shkreli isn’t a simple task

Techly recently reported on some bad news regarding the state of primary school math and science in Australia.

However, it appears that science education in Australia is alive and well, following news that schoolboys at Sydney Grammar have synthesised Daraprim, an important medical drug, for just $2 a dose. Great work lads!

Daraprim is used to treat people with low immune systems, such as patients with HIV or those undergoing chemotherapy.

As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr. Alice Williamson of the University of Sydney initiated the project.

Williamson, who has plans to either “take students to labs or labs to students” thought a real-world problem would be ideal for the students to tackle. With the guidance of their chemistry teacher Dr Malcolm Binns, the students succeeded in creating the drug. Eureka!

But why is this drug a problem anyway?

You may remember Daraprim from last year. It was all over the news after Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceutical, acquired the U.S. rights to the lifesaving drug and boosted its price by over 5000 percent.

In 2009, Daraprim sold for around $1 a pill, and in 2014, it went for $13.50. After Shkreli’s acquisition, the pill was jacked to an outrageous $750 a pill.

What followed was a media-fueled deluge of rage. Shkreli was nicknamed ‘the most hated man in America’, and everyone, including Hillary Clinton, jumped on board the Shkreli Hate Train.

Shkreli’s appearance, personality and online image only made the whole thing worse. He has a habit of smirking and comes across as arrogant, spoiled and plain annoying. (At least one of these isn’t true; he is the son of poor Albanian immigrants).

Nevertheless, the media loves a good bad guy, and Shkreli perfectly fit the bill. So death to Shkreli!

Yet there are two sides to every story.

And before you sharpen your pitchforks, let me just say that I in no way support Shkreli. However, I do believe his actions reveal a deeply flawed and unethical big pharma industry.

Shkreli defended his decision to jack the price in several ways. The first was that the decision was profit-driven. As the then-CEO of a pharma company, Shkreli’s job was to make profit. He needed to make as much money as he could, and selling at the old price just wasn’t profitable.

People usually stop here and (rightfully) continue to hate on Shkreli.

But don’t forget that it is the system that has allowed him to do this. If it was simply a case of supply and demand, then the market would dictate the price of Daraprim. It isn’t though – since the FDA in the US essentially acts as the “muscle” to enforce monopolies on certain drugs.

So the Daraprim made by our Sydney schoolboys could not legally be sold in the US. And the reason why is not Shkreli’s fault – it’s because the FDA has an incredibly long and gruelling process for the approval of generic drugs.

It’s neatly explained here:

Ironically, Shkreli also sees himself as an altruist. Big pharma companies claim that the price of drugs in the U.S. is high because they need to recoup costs of research and development.

However, according to Shkreli, a lot of that research isn’t happening. In a recent Vice interview, Shkreli walks past Pfizer headquarters in New York, Shkreli wryly noting that “they don’t even labs”. He then added that the profits from the Daraprim sales were being poured into R and D to improve treatment.

We still have to take what Shkreli says with a grain of salt. Perhaps Daraprim doesn’t need improving, and of course Pfizer does have a lab, somewhere.

Shkreli’s redemption lies in this argument: people without insurance Daraprim would still only pay $1 for the pill, so by gouging the insurance companies – corporate America – he’s like Robin Hood.

On the back of this controversy, Express Scripts partnered with Imprimis Pharmaceuticals to provide a $1 alternative to Daraprim. To do this, they plan to combine the active ingredient with another drug to bypass the FDA process.

In the meantime Shkreli left Turing, bought an unreleased Wu Tang album and got himself arrested. Today, Daraprim goes for $375 a pill. In August of this year, the cost of EpiPens skyrocketed, a move straight out of the Shkreli playbook. Unsurprisingly the CEO of that company blamed the broken U.S healthcare system.

The lads at Sydney Grammar have done an excellent job and we should applaud their ingenuity.

However, taking down Martin Shkreli is a different story. For that to happen, America would have to totally restructure the FDA and big pharma industry.

And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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