These Pranksters Will Not Stop Harassing Big Pharma and It Rules

Pharma execs at a hepatitis C conference sponsored by drug giant Gilead got a taste of their own medicine this week (pun unapologetically intended) when pranksters snuck into the conference posing as Gilead employees with a… creative new way to market their $84,000 hep C cure.

And it’s all on video!

Somehow the pranksters managed to get up on stage and give almost an entire presentation before anyone realized what was going on: no one in the audience seemed to think it was off to hear a Gilead rep say things like, “We want to give patients a choice: debt, or death?” while hipsters strutted through the crowd like the whole thing was a fashion show. It’s only when the hoaxers announce a new line of credit for people with hep C that someone finally realizes that these people are definitely not from Gilead.

The pranksters are a group called Peng, and Gilead is their favorite target.

Earlier this month, Peng forced Gilead into UK headlines when the group launched an entire fake ad campaign for “Just C,” an “exclusive medicine” for hepatitis C that came with a high-fashion clothing line and a “special line of credit” for people dying from the disease.

The fake ad seems over the top at first, with models dripping yellow paint out of their mouths while showing off “#JustC” branded hoodies and hats. But the longer it goes on, the more you realize it’s not really saying anything different from a standard pharma ad; it’s just way more blatant about it, ending with the slogan “Buy your life back today.”

Gilead was forced to respond, because a lot of people totally bought the idea that the price-gouging company would actually do something like this.

And in case we had any doubts about why Gilead wouldn’t execute on a scheme this scuzzy, their spokespeople cleared it right up: “It’s 100% forbidden,” they told one paper. “It breaches a lot of codes.”

It’s hard to overstate how bad the global hepatitis C crisis is right now.

More than 325 million people are living with it – to put that in perspective, that’s more than the entire U.S. population. It’s nearly ten times the number of people living with AIDS, but here’s the kicker: unlike AIDS, the treatment for Hep C is cheap to make, has few side effects, and boasts a 95% success rate.

So why the epidemic?

Because pharmaceutical companies aren’t actually in the business of healthcare; they’re glorified hedge fund managers, buying up patents like stock to make more profit than any other industry on the planet.

Gilead, which produces the trio of medicines that so successfully treat Hep C, spends about $136 to manufacture a 12-week course. Then they slap on the price tag: $84,000, an increase of over 60,000%.

And they can get away with it because Gilead controls the hepatitis C “market;” not because their product is the best, but because they were granted a monopoly: their patent on the three drugs means that, even though another company invented it using research paid for by American taxpayers, they’re the only ones who can sell it, for at least the next decade.

And while other countries have laws on the books that let them say, “Hey, this drug is way too important for you to price it so high, so our health care system will only pay you half of that,” the U.S. doesn’t: pharma companies are allowed to charge whatever they want, and the rest of us – including the entire Medicare system – have to pony up or die.

Debt or Death?

All of that is why, when the Gilead pranksters showed up to that Hep C conference and said things like “Our products are this season’s must-have – especially if you want to live to see the next season,” no one even blinked. Because that’s how these people think: medicine is a product, not a service, and openly saying things like “debt or death” is really just telling it like it is.

An image from the fake ad campaign, showing a white pill bottle with a yellow cap. The bottle has a very hip, modern design and is labeled "hashtag just c"
Seems legit.

No one’s life should have a price tag. No corporation deserves to make $12 billion in profits in a single year because they bought up a different corporation, which, in turn, invented a drug by piggy-backing off publicly funded research. If you or anyone you know has ever had hepatitis C, you know exactly what’s at stake here: dying of hepatitis C is incredibly painful, for both the patient and the people who love them who have to watch them go. I know because I’ve watched it myself.

But the worst part is how unnecessary it is for hundreds of millions of people – most of them poor, a disproportionate number of them veterans – to struggle with such a horrible disease.

We hear it from the GOP all the time: “Would you rather have it be like in the U.K., where they have to ration care and put grandma on death panels?” Guess what? That’s already happening. Because Gilead sets their prices so high, many private insurance companies outright refuse to pay for their product, relegating patients to either a lifetime of painful, ineffective treatment – or death.

Gilead deserves a heck of a lot more than a couple ingenious pranks. If you’ve ever defended a pharma company’s profits to your friends (or to strangers online), ask yourself whether that company’s CEO would spend even half a second thinking about you.

Gilead made back the money they spent buying up hep C cures in less than one year; they do not need your help. They need your outrage. They need to be held accountable. Ideally, they need to be dismantled, and ownership of their patents needs to be handed over to the taxpayers who funded the initial research in the first place.

But until then, Peng, if you’re reading this: more pranks, please!

Written by Caitlyn McClure

Caitlyn is a rabble-rouser and writer based in Olympia, WA. She is a copywriter and logistics specialist for Tiny Pixel Collective, a web shop providing activists and artists with the tools they need to tell stories that inspire change.