Carolyn Y. Johnson
Martin Shkreli isn’t actually on trial for buying an obscure antiparasitic drug used by AIDS patients and jacking up the price astronomically, but he might as well be.
Three days into Shkreli’s trial for alleged securities fraud — for an issue unrelated to his notorious pharmaceutical price-hike –potential jurors kept circling back to his infamous decision to buy a little-known, little-used drug that was invented before he was born and raise the price overnight, from $13.50 to $750 a pill.
“The only thing I would be impartial about is which prison he goes to,” one juror said. That person was dismissed — as more than 250 were, as my colleague, Renae Merle, reports.
It would be easy to see this courtroom anger as a simple reflection of public outrage about drug prices, something that President Trump tapped into when he said the pharmaceutical industry was “getting away with murder.” It certainly seems unlikely, after all, that many of the jurors in that courtroom have been personally touched by Shkreli’s price hike — the drug, Daraprim, is used by only about 2,000 Americans each year.
That leaves two options: Shkreli’s smirk has become the face of any high drug price — or the moral outrage is related to what Shkreli actually did.
Joshua Sharfstein, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, favors the latter interpretation.
“It’s like if somebody increased the price of water during a hurricane; it’s that kind of price-gouging that people really hate,” Sharfstein said. “It feels fundamentally unjust and unfair. Think if you needed something for your family and people raised the price because they could.”
Sharfstein says that when you ask lots of people what the right price is for a brand new drug, the answer isn’t always clear. People may well think drug prices at large should be lower, but there’s far less agreement on the value of an innovative medicine. When a company takes an old drug without any competitors and boosts the price, however, there’s near consensus.
“A significant majority of people feel like companies that raise the price of an existing drug just because they can are doing something profoundly unfair — everyone agrees with that,” Sharfstein said. “If you can just buy something and get a monopoly on it, but increase the price to the stratosphere to make more money, that’s not what people consider reasonable.”