Pharmaceutical company Mylan has made news recently by raising the price of a popular and important drug. Mylan acquired a product by the name of EpiPen in 2007. At the time, the price of the product was approximately $100 per unit. And, thanks to their government-granted monopoly, the price quickly shot up to $600 after Mylan’s acquisition. However, hackers are now challenging that paradigm by showing people how to make their own version of the EpiPen.
Michael Laufer is part of a pharma-hacking group known as the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective, and they have developed an alternative to the ridiculously expensive EpiPen.
Laufer does not have a life-threatening allergy that requires him to carry around an EpiPen. However, he was still outraged at the spike in price which led to the group releasing a video this week and instructions on a DIY EpiPen. Dubbed the EpiPencil, this generic version can be made easily with materials that you can buy online for around $30.
“It functions just as well as an EpiPen,” Laufer says in the video. “With no special training, anybody can use it.”
In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Laufer explains that it is easy to buy epinephrine online from a chemical supplier. “There’s a small but hopefully growing subculture of people who are buying the active ingredients of drugs,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see people take control of their own heath.”
According to IEEE Spectrum, Laufer’s group goes further than just the EpiPencil. They are also working on a machine that will allow people to make their own medicines.
He revealed the first version of this tool, which he now calls the “Apothecary Microlab,” at a hacker conference in July, IEEE Spectrum reports.
The alpha version of the microlab was a tangle of tubes and sensors sprouting from a mason jar, but Laufer was already able to use it to make a cheap batch of the drug pyrimethamine—that’s the anti-parasite drug made famous when Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of a dose from about $13 to $750. On the Four Thieves website you can download information about how Laufer made the drug, but the information isn’t organized into step-by-step instructions.
That will come, says Laufer. He tells Spectrum that he’s working on a beta version of the hardware, and is also using a software program called Chematica to find simple ways to synthesize many common medicines. On his wish list: HIV medications, drugs to treat Hepatitis C, and the “plan B” emergency contraception pill.
Laufer is bravely challenging the status quo and sees his medical revolution as a human rights crusade. “Someone dies of AIDS every minute, and many of these deaths could have been prevented by the simple adminstration of pharmaceuticals,” he said. “I qualify that as murder—and I feel complicit.”
However, those pharmaceuticals are all too often controlled and hoarded by mega corporations who charge exorbitant fees to obtain them. These companies can charge such ridiculous fees because they are granted a monopoly in the market by the state.
According to a report in Forbes, the government’s outrage over the price of EpiPen is hypocritical as it was a direct result of the government’s policy that caused the price spike:
Epinephrine (Epi) is a naturally occurring hormone our bodies use for Fight or Flight. Epi makes our hearts pump harder, it heightens the senses, strengthens our muscles, and opens up the airways. In patients with sudden constriction of the airways, such as in asthma or respiratory allergies with anaphylaxis, Epi can be lifesaving.
Meridian Medical Technologies introduced the first autoinjectors of Epi for sale to the public in 1997. Mylan Pharmaceuticals became the sole seller and marketer in 2007. After multiple denials by the FDA of competing Epi devices and President Obama’s 2013 legislation forcing public schools to purchase EpiPens, Mylan gained market share to reach its present level of 90 percent.
Why can Mylan get away with a 500% price increase? Because it has a monopoly, one that is maintained by “the federal government’s own regulatory scheme” which allowed, in fact encouraged, “a billion-dollar market [to be] cornered by one supplier.” Government officials decry Mylan’s behavior to distract the public from government complicity.
Sanofi , Teva, and Adamis are three pharmaceutical companies that would like to compete with Mylan; however, they cannot sell Epi because they do not have the FDA’s okay. The feds keep changing their administrative rules and regulations. In fact, “the FDA maintains no clear and consistent principles for generic drug-delivery devices like auto injectors or asthma inhalers.”
As the Free Thought Project previously reported, a breakthrough Harvard paper, published on August 23, titled The High Cost of Prescription Drugs in the United States: Origins and Prospects for Reform, set out to “review the origins and effects of high drug prices in the US market and to consider policy options that could contain the cost of prescription drugs.”
What the paper’s authors, Harvard Medical School doctors Aaron Kesselheim and Jerry Avorn, and jurist Ameet Sarpatwari, found and subsequently admitted, shatters the very assertion that government regulation in the market is needed to keep medical care costs low. In fact, their findings were quite to the contrary.
According to the paper:
The most important factor that allows manufacturers to set high drug prices is market exclusivity, protected by monopoly rights awarded upon Food and Drug Administration approval and by patents.
Knowing the lengths the state and their corporate sponsors will go to in order to maintain control over the market, it is clear that Laufer and his friends at the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective have their work cut out for them.
In fact, Laufer is already receiving flack from the pharmaceutical industry. Jennifer Miller, a professor of medical ethics at NYU, and pharmaceutical insider is calling him a quack.
“He’s basically saying, we should deregulate drugs, and allow anyone to make anything. That is not safe,” Miller says, going on to fear monger. “We once had that system, and people died from it.”
“If your child is having a life-threatening allergic reaction, you want to make sure they get the right medicine, at the right time, at the right dose,” Miller says. An EpiPen will give you what you need, she says, “but you can’t guarantee that with this other device”
However, no one in the pharmaceutical industry can guarantee that any of their medicines are safe.
In fact, pharmaceutical drugs kill nearly 40,000 people every year. Prescription opioids alone, kill more people than all ‘unregulated’ cocaine, heroin, and meth combined.
To a certain extent, people making their own medicine could be unsafe. However, this is the situation that the industry and government have created. If there wasn’t so much regulation, designed ostensibly to protect people but in reality protects the industry’s bottom line, then there would be safe competition in the pharma realm — thus drastically reducing prices — and the need for people to manufacture their own medicine.
Look at medical cannabis for example. In states where it is legal, people can grow their own. However, only a small fraction of medical cannabis patients actually do grow their own because far more experienced people, competing in a free market, have figured out how to do it better.
Until the iron fist of government control lifting up the industry and crushing people’s lives is loosened, we can expect Laufer’s methods to gain popularity — and rightfully so.