Jun 21 • 11M

Chapter 3, Part 4: Delusions of redemption

When Martin Shkreli tried to redeem himself and get out of prison early by volunteering to research a coronavirus treatment, he was mocked by...well...everyone. But his science was right.

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My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
Episode details
Chemical structure of leprosy drug clofazimine.
Chemical structure of leprosy drug clofazimine.

When the U.S. government finally started to sound alarms over the coronavirus, a decision to lock down federal prisons came like an iron door suddenly slamming shut. I was getting ready to spend a weekend in Pennsylvania, to visit Martin Shkreli at FCI Allenwood Low. Aware of the rising unease over the virus, I had checked with a prison administrator earlier that week and was told visitation was proceeding as normal. 

Then on Friday, March 13, 2020, the day before I was scheduled to leave on my trip, everything changed. An ugly red notice appeared on the prison website declaring that visitation was indefinitely suspended. A flurry of news articles and a press release from the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed the worst of my suspicions — the system was put on emergency “modified operations,” supposedly temporarily, but with no obvious end in sight.

“Visiting has been suspended for thirty days,” a prison administrator wrote to me in an email on Monday, March 16, 2020. Visiting ended up being mostly suspended for well over a year.

The agency’s best response to combat a deadly virus was to lock everything down, contain inmates largely to their cells and dormitories, and prohibit visitation. But I knew it was only a matter of time until the virus got in anyway, and in such crowded, dirty and unhealthy conditions it was liable to spread like wildfire.

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The situation looked grim, and as I thought about Martin’s health and safety, my anxiety flared up.

But when Martin reached out to me through the closed-circuit prison email system a few days later, he sounded almost cheerful. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the coronavirus,” he said in an email on March 16, 2020. Soon after that he called me to elaborate, and his voice radiated with optimism. Covid might in some ways be a blessing in disguise for him, he told me. 

Covid-19, which emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019 and steadily made its way around the globe, was by then a full-blown worldwide health crisis. The disease was “novel,” meaning human immune systems hadn’t encountered it before. It could lead to life-threatening respiratory failure while also passing from person-to-person as easily as a cold or flu.

Back in early 2020, vaccines were still a long way off, and doctors were looking for anything and everything that could fight off the virus. Many people were touting unproven remedies like hydroxychloroquine, and outright deadly suggestions like drinking bleach. If there was ever a time when some scrappy, unconventional savant could apply himself and become a hero, this was it.

There was an old leprosy drug that researchers paid little attention to (Martin had an encyclopedic knowledge of these types of old drugs, for better or worse) and it might be helpful in treating serious cases of coronavirus, he told me. He was planning to organize a preliminary study through computer simulations, with help from some smart friends on the outside.

If it worked, he hoped to use it as a bargaining chip to get out of prison early so that he could continue the research. It was like hitting three birds with one stone: securing a way out of prison, doing something good for society, and redeeming himself in the public’s eye for past mistakes. It all sounded too good to be true to me — making a meaningful scientific breakthrough…from inside prison. But I was happy he had embraced this project. Hope was a vital antidote to despair, and despair definitely seemed like the default setting.

A few days later, he dashed off an email to me so quickly, and with so much excitement, that he didn’t bother to fix the grammatical errors: “i might be a paper out on coronavirus in around 1 weeks lol,” he wrote. (I assumed he meant “I might put out a paper on the coronavirus in about one week.”) “Awesome!” I replied. In a follow-up email to the friends working on the project with him, he made clear that, unlike in his past instances of looking into old drugs, he wasn’t interested in earning a profit from this work. He would make the drug available for free.

An email from Martin Shkreli while he was in prison.
An email from Martin Shkreli while he was in prison.

“There is no commercial opportunity here, just a huge amount of glory and a good deed for the American people,” he wrote.

A friend helping Martin Shkreli research clofazimine could not send him images through the prison email system. So he created images of the chemical structure using slash marks.
A friend on the outside who was helping Martin Shkreli research clofazimine could not send him images through the prison email system. So he created a picture of the chemical structure using slash marks.

I volunteered to help coordinate the announcement of the scientific paper where he and his associates laid out their findings. Starry-eyed over his accomplishments from behind bars, Martin didn’t seem to comprehend how big of a lift it would be to get people to actually recognize what he had done.

There was a producer at Fox Business that Martin was friendly with who was willing to try to help. But as I talked with the producer over the phone I could hear how uncertain he sounded. Could he really attribute actual, substantive coronavirus research…to Martin Shkreli…on national television? I knew that was the unspoken question.

In early April 2020, Martin’s associates posted the paper anyway to a “preprint” site — a quick and commonly used method by scientists to publicize study results before they could be formally peer-reviewed by traditional journals. “In silico screening for potential COVID-19 beta-coronavirus non-nucleoside RdRp inhibitors,” it was titled. As its key finding, the paper highlighted “a metabolite of clofazimine as a novel, well-understood candidate for the treatment of COVID-19.” That was the old leprosy drug Martin had previously mentioned.

An excerpt from Martin Shkreli’s paper on coronavirus treatments.
An excerpt from Martin Shkreli’s paper on coronavirus treatments.

A message popped up in my Twitter DM’s from a biotech reporter at the healthcare publication Stat. He had seen the paper on the preprint site and wanted to confirm its authenticity. Although I hadn’t “outed” myself yet as Martin’s girlfriend (I would do so in December in an Elle profile against his wishes), it was common knowledge among many journalists that I was very friendly with him. I told the reporter the paper was, indeed, the work of the “Pharma Bro.” 

I added that friends on the outside had helped him with the database work “because they think it’s an interesting project and some way to make a positive contribution to the world, as unlikely as that probably sounds to the general public.”

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The story the reporter wrote, unsurprisingly, cast the effort in the most selfish possible light. Based on Martin’s horrendous public image, as a result of him jacking up the price of a toxoplasmosis medication in 2015 and suddenly becoming the “face” of pharmaceutical greed worldline, I expected that journalists would probably use a negative frame.

“Martin Shkreli is trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to get out of prison,” the headline said. There was no discussion in the article of the threat posed by Covid to prisoners, who could not socially distance or otherwise take precautions, and whose access to quality healthcare was usually in doubt. The article cited a chemist who described the conclusions in the paper as “not crazy” but also “not particularly groundbreaking, either, at least to my eyes.” 

Later that month, Martin’s lawyers filed a motion with the court seeking his release, placing emphasis on the health risks he faced but also referencing his coronavirus treatment research as a possible added benefit of transferring him to home confinement. Although my personal information was redacted from the filing, I was described in the documents as his “fiancée” and the lawyers explained to the judge that he would live with me if he was released.

In their reply filing, the prosecutors exorciated Martin. They said he did not deserve to be released, that the danger posed by the virus was minimal because he was young and relatively healthy, and that his attempt to look into a coronavirus treatment was purely self-serving. The filing even described his effort as “delusional.”

The peanut gallery on Twitter, which seemed to relish every misfortune Martin encountered, loved it. But having sat through every day of Martin’s trial on securities fraud charges back in 2017, and having watched the same prosecutors put on witness after witness who testified that Martin was “brilliant” (if also flawed), I was disgusted. I saw their filing as a knowing, naked play to the sensibilities of a mob.

An excerpt from the prosecutors’ reply to Martin Shkreli’s request for compassionate release.
An excerpt from the prosecutors’ reply to Martin Shkreli’s request for compassionate release.

I was disappointed although not shocked when the judge later rejected his request. Then in June 2020, comedian and commentator John Oliver referenced the effort in a segment about coronavirus in prisons on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” Reflecting the widespread public perception, Oliver described Martin’s work as just another greedy attempt to profit off of patients. But Oliver still wanted to make clear that even so, Martin didn’t deserve to die in prison from coronavirus.

John Oliver makes a joke about Martin Shkreli’s coronavirus treatment research in a Last Week Tonight segment.
John Oliver makes a joke about Martin Shkreli’s coronavirus treatment research in a Last Week Tonight segment.

“Martin Shkreli, the ‘Pharma Bro,’ tried to get released to home arrest so that he could work on developing a cure for the coronavirus, presumably so he could call it ‘Rona Juice’ and then sell it for 5,000% more than it should cost,” Oliver said. “And he was denied, and when you hear that, you might think, ‘Good, f— that guy.’”

“And generally, yeah, f— that guy. But in this instance, despite the fact that Martin Shkreli is an attention-starved tree frog who clearly wasn’t held enough as a tadpole — and despite his reasoning for being released being complete bull**** — I don’t want him to contract the virus and potentially die from it. I don’t want that for anyone, none of us should.”

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Meanwhile, as people were getting their yucks in at Martin’s expense, other more respected scientists interested in helping find coronavirus treatments began also looking into clofazimine, the leprosy drug he had identified. In July 2020, a group of researcher published a study in the prestigious journal Nature describing the “discovery” of drugs that could be repurposed into coronavirus treatments. The paper highlighted clofazimine as one promising candidate. 

The headline for a letter to a British medical journal about clofazimine.
The headline for a letter to a British medical journal about clofazimine.

A follow-up study published in March 2021 found that “clofazimine broadly inhibits coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2 [the scientific name for Covid-19].” In a letter to British medical journal BMJ, two researchers asked if the drug was “a potential magic bullet” for treating the disease.

As far as I could tell, nothing dramatically different had been unearthed about the leprosy drug beyond what Martin and his friends had found. The only change was that now Martin Shkreli’s name wasn’t associated with it.