After dropping $2 million on a Wu-Tang Clan album, the pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli has found a new project: making an essential treatment unaffordable for poor immigrants from Latin America.
Shkreli, otherwise known as “pharma bro,” gained notoriety earlier this year when his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, increased the price of a drug used to treat AIDS patients from around $13.50 to $750. He’s now the CEO of KaloBios Pharmaceuticals, which recently announced its plans to submit benznidazole, a treatment for Chagas disease purchased earlier this month, for Food and Drug Administration approval next year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 300,000 people in the United States have the deadly disease. Most of them are immigrants from Latin America, where as many as 8 million people are infected.
The third most common parasite disease in the world, Chagas, also known as the “kissing bug disease,” is transmitted via the painless bites of Triatomine insects. Untreated, it can lead to heart failure and death. Last year, researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine identified Chagas in several patients who hadn’t traveled outside of the country, positing that they may have come into contact with the bugs through camping and hunting. That said, the risk of contracting the parasite in the U.S. remains small; most people who have the disease in the United States already had it when they arrived.
Right now, doctors in the U.S. obtain benznidazole free of charge through the CDC. According to Rachel Cohen, the regional executive director of the Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative in North America, the drug sells in Latin America for somewhere between $60 and $100 for each course of treatment. Both of these would change the moment the FDA approved benznidazole from any company—and Shkreli, in particular, seems determined to price this drug out of reach of the people who need it. In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, KaloBios wrote that it expects to price the Chagas drug similarly to antivirals for Hepatitis C, which can cost almost $100,000 for a single course of treatment in the United States.