Joined by harm-reduction advocates, local musicians performed outside a Baltimore drug manufacturing facility Wednesday afternoon to protest the price of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan sold by pharmaceutical company Emergent BioSolutions.
Demonstrators parked a flatbed truck adorned with signs demanding broader access to Narcan outside the Carroll-Camden Industrial Area plant on Paca Street, where three bands played loud go-go and punk music for a little over two hours.
Since acquiring Adapt Pharma in 2018, Gaithersburg-based Emergent BioSolutions has produced the nasal spray version of naloxone, a medication designed to reverse an opioid overdose.
Anyone can purchase naloxone at a Maryland pharmacy without a prescription. The Baltimore City Health Department maintains an online map of pharmacies that dispense Narcan, the nasal spray, and offers training on how to use it.
Musicians for Overdose Prevention, one of the organizations leading the protest, distributes Narcan kits to musicians and music venues. Director John Kennedy said the organization was founded in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2020 after three people in the local music scene died of overdoses.
“We went to the local health department and we were like, ‘Can we get naloxone to take around to every music venue in the local scene?’ And we did it,” Kennedy said. “Every musician that comes to us, every venue that comes to us, we’ll send it to them.”
Kennedy said the nonprofit’s biggest obstacle is the drug’s cost, with the $75 to $90 price tag proving too costly for individual musicians who make ends meet by washing dishes. He said even with rates for community organizations that are closer to $50, buying thousands of kits a year is unsustainable.
“They won’t donate, they won’t make deals to lessen the cost. So we’ve got to find a way to get their attention,” Kennedy said. He said his group has spent about a year trying to contact Emergent to get cheaper doses of the drug.
In a statement, Emergent spokesperson Matt Hartwig said the company is working with governments, community organizations, harm-reduction advocates and patient advocates to make the drug available for those who need it and that many groups can access Narcan at a “substantial discount.”
“For the majority of people with insurance coverage who access Emergent’s NARCAN or another company’s generic naloxone nasal spray at the pharmacy, the price is often less than $20 per carton, which includes two doses,” Hartwig said in a statement. “We continuously advocate for programs, initiatives, and solutions that further strengthen and expand access to naloxone and reduce the stigma associated with opioid overdoses.”
He added that Emergent has not raised the price of Narcan since acquiring it.
The company previously faced scrutiny from Congress and shareholders after federal regulators asked Emergent to halt its production of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine in 2021, after a mix-up led to millions of doses being discarded.
A few curious Emergent employees ventured outside the building Wednesday to listen and take videos as D.C.-based band Yaddiya & The Honest Politix began to blast go-go music at around 3 p.m. After one worker told a reporter she liked the music, a security guard said employees were not authorized to speak to the protesters or the media.
The D.C.-based organization Long Live GoGo also helped put together Wednesday’s protest, providing the truck that served as a stage.
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“It’s important to have music people can resonate with while you’re giving messaging that’s going to change their lives,” said Kelsye Adams, Long Live Gogo’s executive director. “This type of music is one of the easiest mechanisms to draw people out.”
Adams said she found it amusing to watch Emergent workers exiting the fence surrounding the plant “kind of in amazement about what’s happening when we’re literally protesting them.” She said she hoped employees brought the protest’s message — that overdose medication should be accessible to the artistic community — back to their bosses.
People walking their dogs and other passersby also stopped to observe the mid-street performance. The stylings of Yaddiya & The Honest Politix brought neighbor Nathan Fowlkes outside on his day off of work. Fowlkes said he had never heard go-go music before. “It’s a great introduction,” he said.
Yaddiya & The Honest Politix were followed by Chris Speights of Baltimore-area band Pronouns and hardcore punk band Silk Leash, which rehearses nearby. Musicians punctuated their sets with calls for Emergent to put people over profit.
Speights said Pronouns’ “daisy-core” sound is hard to sum up. “I don’t know to describe it other than, it’s a feeling,” he said.
Silk Leash’s bassist, Andrew Prinn, said his band had accepted the invitation to play because it had heard negative things about the drug company’s actions.
“It seemed like fun,” he said.