As It Happens6:08Writer says he posted ‘insulin is free’ tweet to make a point about corporate greed
Sean Morrow says his tweet claiming insulin was free didn’t fool anyone — and that was kind of the point.
Morrow, a writer for the progressive online publication More Perfect Union, has claimed responsibility for the viral tweet that impersonated U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.
“I never saw anybody saying, ‘Oh, hooray, insulin is free now,’ which drives home the absurdity,” Morrow told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
“No one believed it, because no pharmaceutical company would ever do this in the United States.”
The parody account tweet — which was accompanied by Twitter’s trademark blue verification check mark — got 1,500 retweets and 10,000 likes in the six hours it was live on Nov. 10.
It forced the real Eli Lilly to issue a correction. The next day, the company’s stock value plunged. The tweet caused panic inside the company, according to the Washington Post, and prompted it to pull all advertising from Twitter.
But Morrow says he’s not worried about getting in trouble. The joke, he says, was obvious to anyone who has ever had to buy medicine in the United States.
“It’s unfortunate, but a pharmaceutical company saying that their product is free or even cheaper is absurd. And that’s the trademark of a satire.”
Blue check mark chaos
When tech giant Elon Musk took over Twitter, one of his first orders of business was to change how the social media company doles out verification.
Originally, blue check marks on Twitter indicated that an account was authentic, and the person, organization, or company tweeting was who they say they were.
But for a brief period in November, Musk changed verification to a subscription service. Anyone willing to pay $7.99 US monthly could get a verified account.
Morrow says he seized the opportunity to rename one of his Twitter accounts @EliLillyandCo, and tweeted: “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.”
“I thought, hey, I feel like this is an opportunity to speak to corporate greed,” he said. “I was not expecting it to blow up as much as it did.”
CBC cannot confirm with complete certainty that Morrow is behind the tweet. But he shared screenshots with As It Happens that appear to show official emails from Twitter pertaining to the @EliLillyandCo account, including one notifying him that he had logged onto a new device, and another informing him the account had been suspended.
He also shared screenshots of himself logged into the account on his browser and receiving notifications from people liking, retweeting, or replying to the post. And he shared an image of an email confirming that he’d subscribed to the blue check mark verification system.
Twitter has since halted subscription verification. Musk said Monday he would delay its relaunch until he had “a high confidence of stopping impersonation.”
Eli Lilly admits prices are high
But during its brief existence, Morrow says the tweet did what he intended it to — sparked a conversation about what he sees as the absurdly high price of a life-saving drug that millions of Americans depend upon.
Not only did Eli Lilly have to tweet that insulin, in fact, is not free, but the company’s CEO David Ricks said the fake tweet debacle “probably highlights that we have more work to do to bring down the cost of insulin for more people”.
T1International, a U.S. organization that advocates for affordable insulin for all, called on Eli Lilly to put its money where its mouth is.
“While we are glad to see that Eli Lilly is admitting this reality, it should not have to take another giant corporate mishap to lead to such a statement,” the group said in a press release.
“Not to mention, T1International and other advocates have been saying what Rick’s said for years.”
Eli Lilly did not respond to a request for comment from CBC.
According to a 2022 press release, the company currently charges $82.41 US for individual vials of their Insulin Lispro Injection, or $159.12 US for a pack of five pens.
Why is insulin so expensive in the U.S.?
The Canadian trio who discovered insulin famously sold their patents to the University of Toronto in 1923 for $1 each, with scientist Frederick G. Banting noting: “Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world.”
Cut to 2022, and the price of insulin has risen dramatically — especially in the U.S.
A 2019 report by the independent Health Care Cost Institute found that the annual cost of insulin for Americans with Type 1 diabetes rose 97 per cent between 2012 and 2016, from $2,900 US to $5,700 US.
The soaring prices have led many Americans to cross the border into Canada, where insulin is much cheaper. Minnesota’s Nicole Smith-Holt told CBC News in 2019 that she pays $300 per vial in the U.S. for her fast-acting insulin. In Canada, she was able to get it for $30.
The cheaper price in Canada is largely due to a federal agency that sets a maximum price that can be charged for patented drugs.
A 2017 Lancet paper linked insulin price increases to “newer, incrementally improved products covered by numerous additional patents.”
But Dr. Jing Luo, who researches pharmaceutical pricing and policy, told Vox in 2017 that he’s skeptical of that explanation, noting that he’s come across many examples in his research of insulin products that have remained unchanged for years, and yet the prices have still risen at a higher rate than inflation.
“They are doing it because they can,” Luo said, referring to drug companies.
As It Happens reached out to Luo and several other experts for comment on Thursday — which is American Thanksgiving — but did not hear back before deadline.
Morrow says the fallout from his tweet may have been a “wake-up call” for Eli Lilly. But he also noticed the company’s CEO was careful in his remarks not to promise any price reductions.
“It seems that it’s still all about keeping their margins high and keeping their profits high enough,” Morrow said. “It’s not about the fact that the product that this corporation happens to sell is something that a lot of people need to live.”