Bioregnum, Legal

The Martin Shkreli saga ends today, but the issue he raised on drug pricing seems immortal

Martin Shkreli is offering us one last lesson today on the consequences of criminally bad behavior.

A federal judge, already riled enough by Shkreli’s decision to offer a bounty on Hillary Clinton’s hair to leave him locked up in a Brooklyn prison for 6 months to await sentencing and then force him to forfeit $7.4 million, will sentence him later today on three felony convictions.

In the end, Shkreli tried to strike an apologetic tone for his transgressions. He had lied repeatedly to his investors, manipulated Retrophin stock and feared jail. But prosecutors only threw back a damning series of remarks he had made mocking his enemies, and proudly declaring that he was about to get off nearly scot free, happy to do some short time in Club Fed. They also ridiculed his pretensions about drug development, highlighting an unsupervised drug trial in Cyprus.

None of this, though, had anything to do with the brouhaha he triggered over his decision to jack up the price of Daraprim overnight by 5,000%-plus. But that was completely legal — and that’s the one feature to this story that will continue to loom large, long after Shkreli has been forgotten.

Biopharma wanted nothing to do with him.

That is not what the public was thinking when the young, angry biotech exec was called everything from the most hated man in America to a poster boy for drug price reform. He fired back at every occasion, calling me a moron early on in classic Shkreli fashion. (Bless him, it gave me a short time on the public stage I’ll never forget.)

Shkreli’s oversized presence in the biopharma industry will begin to fade now that he can no longer feed the flames of public discontent with his vitriolic online remarks about drug pricing and the people he scorns. First banned from Twitter, now banned from the public, his profile will gradually ebb away. He’s had nearly three years in the spotlight — the kind of fame that made him the butt of jokes on Saturday Night Live — which is a lot longer than the 15 minutes of infamy most Wall Street felons earn.

Shkreli showed how anyone can grab any drug — even an old, cheap therapy like Daraprim — and then price it at whatever amount they want, provided they can control a narrow production channel. Lawmakers railed at him, the public despised him and the president moved markets at one point vowing to lower drug prices. But nothing has been done to stop another Martin Shkreli from coming along, someone who won’t wind up in jail.

Someone with a more finely tuned instinct for survival, who can weather any temporary eruption of discontent and keep gouging patients relentlessly.

By making himself the villain, Shkreli made drug pricing an issue that won’t go away. He can be silenced, but eventually the issue he represented will have to be dealt with. And the industry knows that only too well.

Image: Martin Shkreli. AP IMAGES

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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