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Revealed: I’m The Guy Behind The Viral ‘Insulin Is Free’ Tweet

Elli Lilly had to issue a clarification that "insulin is not free" after a parody account on Twitter forced their hand.

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Hey, my name’s Sean and this is how I accidentally made national news with $8, 9 words, and 10 minutes.

[News clip]: Perhaps the most damaging tweet from a fake account happened to pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly [who appeared to tweet]: Insulin is free now.

When Elon Musk announced that anyone could buy Twitter verification for 8 bucks, critics were quickly like “yeah man, that’s not a great idea, you shouldn’t do that,” including his own team. But he did it anyway, and it went as expected, yeah that’s Mario, the plumber from video games, flipping the bird, direct from a fake Nintendo account. 

I saw these accounts popping up, and I was procrastinating doing my laundry so I knew I had to make an account too.

Since I’m a giant nerd who thinks about my job — writing for More Perfect Union — way too much, I knew I wanted to use the opportunity to speak to corporate greed. When you think about corporate greed there are so many options, like just look at all these stories of executives putting profit over all else.

But one thing stands out in the pantheon of corporate greed in the United States. Nearly 40 million Americans have diabetes. 1 in 4 people with type 1 or 2 diabetes are forced to ration their insulin because of the high cost, often hundreds of dollars per vial for the uninsured. 

But insulin doesn’t cost that much to produce — sometimes as little as 10 dollars a dose — that’s more than a Twitter Blue account.

So I took out my googlin’ fingers and searched “top insulin manufacturers.” Yes, I had to google it. That’s how unplanned this was. I learned that three companies control 90% of the insulin market — and I’ll get to why that’s so important and part of the problem. 

I took an old failed parody account I had made for a fictional “Mothman for West Virginia Senate” campaign — that’s why it only followed Joe Manchin and Laura Linney, who was in The Mothman Prophecies — and created an account for Eli Lilly, the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company. 

I took no effort to protect my identity while building the account — I was not careful at all. 

Again this was not coordinated and I’m not some mastermind — I only found out babies don’t drink water like six months ago. 

I threw the word ‘parody’ into the bio — at the time, that was in complete compliance with Twitter’s rules around parody — and wrote out a tweet so absurd that no pharmaceutical company would ever actually tweet it: “We are excited to announce insulin is free now”

Later, to drive home that it was parody, I posted again, did a retweet, and replied to other users. Within a few hours the post had thousands of retweets; Twitter was forced to change its parody policy; major politicians responded; memes were made; the account was suspended; and the real Eli Lilly responded. “No,” they made clear “insulin is not free.” But, why not? It feels weird to make one of these videos based on something I did with no planning in my living room, but this is The Class Room, from More Perfect Union. 

Insulin is a hormone produced by mammals that is essential to life. Some people, diabetics, don’t produce enough. In 1921 when Twitter didn’t even exist yet (I don’t think) a team of researchers discovered a way to extract insulin from animals for use as a medicine for humans, an incredibly important discovery.

They probably could’ve probably made a lot of money on this but instead sold the patent to a university for $1 because, one researcher said, “Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world.”

It wasn’t meant to be a profit driver, it was meant to be a lifesaver. But in 1923 the inventors partnered with Eli Lilly for their expertise in producing glandular extracts. Eli Lilly got the US patents for “any manufacturing-process improvements.”

In the United States drug patents end after 20 years, meaning the drugs can go generic, any company can make them, and the price goes way down. But the three insulin manufacturers coordinated and used a strategy called “evergreening” to keep the patents alive forever. They keep making improvements to insulin — honestly, often good ones — but very incrementally, meaning every improvement buys them another 20 years. It’s an intentional strategy to keep the patents, which also slows innovation. 

“Obsolete” drugs are often discontinued and lose FDA-approval, which means that generic manufacturers can’t make them. That basically means the patents can be eternal. The companies will also add multiple patents to one drug by patenting different component parts. OOne form of insulin has 74 patents attached to it. That’s just one element of the problem. 

Pharmaceutical marketing, influence over doctors and trade groups, the relationships between pharma and the insurance company, and lack of regulation all help pharmaceutical companies price gouge Americans. When Senator Bernie Sanders quoted Eli Lilly’s apology tweet, and pointed out these pricing problems Elon Musk himself attempted to debate him… Only to be fact-checked by his own website: Americans pay more for insulin than any other country. 

Elon’s defense of insulin pricing came after Twitter received angry correspondence from Eli Lilly which ended up with them pulling all future advertising from Twitter, which is going to really hurt because pharmaceutical companies spend a lot on marketing. And that’s why Twitter changed their verification rules. You don’t mess with giant corporations, and you really don’t mess with advertisers.

I was hesitant to even make this video because I had truly no idea how big the impact of the tweet would be when I posted it. And I don’t really want to take credit. It’s not a scoop or hot take that insulin pricing is a huge problem — it’s a plain truth that millions of working Americans experience every day. The sad part is many people have reported on this before, many politicians have tried to pass bills, but nothing has happened because the pharmaceutical industry has so much power. Elon Musk just gave me the power to put the righteous anger millions of people already feel about this system into a single tweet.

83% of Americans think prescription drug pricing is unreasonable. Even the Wall Street Journal, a publication mostly dedicated to protecting the interests of big business, highlighted the high cost of insulin. 

A few days after the tweet the CEO of Eli Lilly was asked about it and responded, “It probably highlights that we have more work to do to bring down the cost of insulin for more people. And the replies to the real Eli Lilly’s tweet were pretty heartbreaking.

If so many people are so unified in their anger maybe it’s time to make a change. I know what I’m doing about it. I hope this works.

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