To Challenge the Status Quo: Staging a Teach-In on Access to Medicines

In mid-February the Harvard Financial Analysts Club invited Martin Shkreli to campus to give a talk on “healthcare and investing.” This worried a significant portion of Harvard students on many fronts. I write here from the perspective of the Global Health & AIDS Coalition (GHAC).

Martin Shkreli, perhaps better known as Pharma Bro, earned himself a mix of infamy and admiration after hiking the price of Daraprim– a drug used to treat toxoplasmosis (a symptom in immunocompromised patients) – from $13.50 to $750 overnight. Shkreli’s investing approach can be broken down quite simply: he found and promptly exploited a niche medication with no competition.

This investing approach is not only uninteresting, but is terribly dangerous and potentially life threatening. As an activist group that works on access to medicines and healthcare equality, GHAC wanted to inform our peers about the deep faults of the pharmaceutical industry and its loopholes – which is what allows individuals like Shkreli to put sick people’s lives in danger on a whim. While his visit to campus – and the Financial Analysts Club support of him – inspired our action, he was not the target of our programming.

To provide our fellow students with the facts from experts – as we here at an academic institution are wont to – we organized a panel of leading experts for a teach-in that served as ‘alternative programming’ to Shkreli’s evening talk and to put our access to medicines angle at the forefront. These professionals spoke to their experiences as lawyers, practitioners, and activists and highlight the challenges of promoting true innovation in the pharmaceutical industry and protecting public health.

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(Photo credit: Shayla Partridge) Student audience at Teach-In on Pharma Greed and Access to Medicines; February 15, 2017

The panelists included Brook Baker, a law professor at Northeastern University who specializes in intellectual property and patent protections, Michelle Morse, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, the Founding Co-Director of Equal Health, and the former Deputy CMO of Partners in Health, Justin Mendoza, an activist and analyst with Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, and Tiffany Chan, a psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance.

With an audience of over 80 students, the panelists had a dynamic discussion about the challenges they’ve confronted in dealing with prohibitive drug prices and how they discuss these issues with their colleagues in various fields. They also fielded student questions about how they can advance access to medicines in their future medical careers and what legislative approaches are most effective when dealing with the pharmaceutical industry.

One of the major takeaways of the teach-in was to not accept the status quo: do not accept that university-generated basic science can be bought for corporate gain, do not accept claims that brand name pharmaceuticals are superior to their generics, do not accept that patents can be extended and ever-greened for decades at a time preventing them from being affordable to those who need them, and do not remain quiet in the face of these injustices – especially when they may take the form of your finance-bound peers learning strategies from the likes of a character like Shkreli.

The protest and teach-in garnered incredible media attention in The Boston Globe, The Daily News, NPR, and other outlets. Perhaps most importantly, the action in February engaged a network of students in the access to medicines movement going forward. Notes from the event can be found on the GHAC Facebook page or directly, here.

 

 

Shayla Partridge is a Junior in Leverett House studying History and Science and Global Health & Health Policy. She represents the Global Health and AIDS Coalition (GHAC) on the HGHI Student Advisory Committee, which is a small campus group that organizes locally and nationally with Student Global AIDS Campaign and HealthGAP. GHAC uses direct advocacy and activism tactics to improve funding for global health mechanisms – including PEPFAR and the Global Fund – and improve access to medicines by targeting intellectual property provisions and trade agreements that threaten lives.