Hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli is 32 years old but he’s acting half that age on Twitter today after news broke that his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, had raised the price of the life-saving drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill.
Daraprim is used to treat toxoplasmosis, a condition caused by a parasite that exists in nearly a quarter of the U.S. population over age 12, but which can prove deadly for the unborn children of pregnant women and for immunocompromised individuals like AIDS patients. These vulnerable populations will now have to pay over 5,000 percent more for their treatment.
Due to the sudden price hike, Shkreli, whose company only acquired Daraprim last month, has already dethroned the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion as the most-hated man in America. And based on his social media behavior, he has no interest in shaking off that reputation.
In the past two days, Shkreli has quoted Eminem to combat the media backlash, called FierceBiotech editor-in-chief John Carroll a “moron,” retweeted the mere handful of people on Twitter who are not criticizing him, and shamelessly promoted his media blitz. On the topic of the tongue-lashing that he is receiving on social media, Shkreli wrote that Twitter “seems to be a great medium for socialist and liberal rage.” He has also called the Daraprim price change “a great thing for society” and waved off concerns that it will place a further debt burden on middle- and low-income patients.
Between tweets, Shkreli apparently has the time to respond to attacks and criticism on Reddit, where he is also being blasted for his seeming callousness. And on Monday afternoon, Shkreli did a news show circuit as well, beginning with Bloomberg, where he attempted to argue that Daraprim had been underpriced before Turing swept in.
“The price per course of treatment to save your life was only $1,000 and we know these days, [with] modern pharmaceuticals, cancer drugs can cost $100,000 or more, rare-disease drugs can cost half a million dollars,” Shkreli said, as if it should be shocking that cheap, life-saving medicine could cost less than a laptop.
When confronted by the reporter with the low cost of producing Daraprim—about $1 per pill by her estimate—Shkreli claimed that the price hike was necessary for Turing Pharmaceuticals to increase revenue, and that some of the profits would be funneled into research and development costs for a Daraprim alternative. But as Emory University infectious disease professor Dr. Wendy Armstrong told RawStory, “I certainly don’t think this is one of those diseases where we have been clamoring for better therapies.”
The Daily Beast approached Shkreli on Twitter to ask for a response to Dr. Armstrong’s claim and Shkreli responded that she was “wrong,” and that a recent publication showed that some patients who suffer from the rare neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis had died despite treatment. When asked for a citation for that publication, Shkreli did not respond.
This isn’t Shkreli’s first price-hiking biotech rodeo. In fact, a year ago, when he was the CEO of Retrophin, his company acquired Thiola and planned to increase its price by over 20 times. Thiola is used to treat cystinuria, an incurable kidney disease. The board of Retrophin fired Shkreli and sued him for $65 million over an alleged misuse of company funds. After being booted, Shkreli, as appears to be his custom, lashed out on Twitter.
But as reprehensible as Shkreli’s actions might appear, what is even more harrowing is that they are not illegal. With his social media swagger, Shkreli makes an easy target for a problem that extends far beyond the confines of his ego: the rampant overpricing of life-saving medicine. As USA Today reported, many new cancer drugs cost over $100,000 per year—a fact that Shkreli, ironically, sees as justification for raising the cost of Daraprim. And technically, there’s no way to stop him.
As a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration told The Daily Beast’s Ben Collins on Twitter in response to Shkreli’s actions, their power in this situation is, well, nonexistent.
An FAQ page on the FDA’s website asks, “What can the FDA do about the cost of drugs?” and the answer is, essentially, nothing: “We understand that drug prices have a direct impact on the ability of people to cope with their illnesses as well as meet other expenses. However, FDA has no legal authority to investigate or control the prices charged for marketed drugs.”
But after Martin Shkreli reached public enemy status in the blink of an eye, the alleged price gouging of pharmaceuticals has quickly become a campaign issue. Hillary Clinton called Turing’s price change “outrageous” and announced that she would reveal a plan to take the “specialty drug market” to task on Tuesday.
Largely in response to this tweet, biotech stocks took a tumble on Monday and, as CNN Money reported, Shkreli’s former company Retrophin was disproportionately affected. Turing Pharmaceuticals may get rich off of Daraprim but, in so doing, Shkreli has put the entire biotech industry in an uncomfortable spotlight.
From the looks of it, he’s too busy tweeting to care.
Update 9/21/15 7:15 p.m.: A sworn affidavit submitted by ex-Retrophin employee Timothy Pierotti to the Supreme Court of the State of New York and obtained by The Daily Beast alleges that Martin Shkreli engaged in a pattern of harassment against him and his family for almost a year. Retrophin sued Pierotti in 2013 for $3 million in damages when Shkreli was still CEO of the company; the case was discontinued in 2014.
Pierotti’s affidavit includes screenshots of alleged messages that Shkreli sent to him, his wife, and his son. One Facebook message allegedly sent by Shkreli to Pierotti’s wife, Kristen, poses a question to her that several people asked Shkreli himself on Monday.
“How do you sleep at night?” the message reads.
“Your husband stole millions from me,” it goes on.
A letter allegedly received by Kristen in the mail says, “I hope to see you and your four children homeless and will do whatever I can to assure this.”
Another screenshot shows what appears to be a conversation between Shkreli and Pierotti’s then-16-year-old son.
“Hey, I’m a friend of your father,” Shkreli allegedly writes after sending a friend request. And, when the teen asks why the friend request was sent in the first place: “Because I want you to know about your dad. He betrayed me. He stole $3 million from me.”
A LinkedIn message allegedly received by Timothy Pierotti himself simply reads, “Scumbag—Martin Shkreli.”
Also included in the affidavit is a screenshot of a text message on Kristen Pierotti’s iPhone from a number that Pierotti alleges is Martin Shkreli’s.
“Hey sweetheart,” the message reads.
Pierotti filed two police reports to the Summit Police Department concerning these alleged communications. When the police contacted Shkreli, he “initially denied even knowing Mr. Pierotti” but then claimed that he hadn’t “talked to him in years, well at least a year.” When the police presented Shkreli with Pierotti’s accusations, he said “that he hasn’t talked to Mr. Pierotti in over a year so how could he be harassing him.”
The reporting officer writes: “I suggested to Mr. Shkreli that he listen to what I was advising him of and not try to make denials based on word semantics.”
The officer warned him to cease contacting Mr. Pierotti, after which Shkreli hung up.
Pierotti did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. A request for comment submitted to Shkreli through Turing Pharmaceuticals was not immediately returned.