Hedge funder Martin Shkreli reminded everyone of the sky-high—and seemingly arbitrary—costs of prescription medicines in this country when he bought and immediately increased the price of an established drug used to fight a parasitic infection. The price hike was eye-popping, from $13.50 a pill to $750 per pill, prompting Dr. Judith Aberg of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to ask, “What is it that they are doing differently that has led to this dramatic increase?” Shkreli’s answer was similar to what Big Pharma trots out all the time—the extra money will help them to make better drugs. Besides, he noted, not many people get the parasitic infection that the now-$750 drug treats. (Small consolation, one imagines, to the unfortunates who actually have it.)
The business of developing and selling prescription drugs is not just big. It’s huge. Sales for prescription meds in the world are expected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2018 . That equates to 1.3% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To put it another way, Big Pharma’s sales are bigger than the annual GDP of all but 15 countries on the planet. In the United States alone, seven out of 10 Americans are taking prescription medications . Almost 4 billion prescriptions were written in the U.S. last year. And for the unluckiest of us, those prescriptions cost dearly. Six-figure dearly. Those are the Americans with rare conditions for which Big Pharma develops what are termed “orphan drugs,” or drugs meant to treat diseases from which few people suffer.