Overly expensive insulin could be a thing of the past – and life-changing news – for millions of diabetics under a plan launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday to diversify production globally, just ahead of World Diabetes Day.
Announcing the initiative in Geneva, the UN agency said that it had already had informal expressions of interest from pharmaceutical companies looking to produce insulin and have WHO assess whether it is safe for people to use.
“The simple fact is, that the prevalence of diabetes is growing, the amount of insulin available to treat diabetes is too low, the prices are too high, so we need to do something,” said Emer Cooke, Director of Regulation of Medicines and other Health Technologies at WHO.
Coinciding with the project launch, which comes ahead of World Diabetes Day marked each 14 November, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the impact of “catastrophic” medical expenses on sufferers.
“Diabetes damages health and undermines educational and employment aspirations for many, affecting communities and forcing families into economic hardship”, he said, particularly in low and middle-income countries.
The WHO’s two-year pilot project, unveiled on Wednesday, involves the evaluation of insulin developed by manufacturers to ensure their quality, safety, efficacy and affordability.
Assuming there is enough interest from manufacturers and, crucially, more insulin available for diabetics, the scheme could be expanded more widely.
“We’re going to look at the number of companies that will apply, we’re going to look at how long it takes, we’re going to look at the outcomes and we’re going to see whether this makes sense and it really is increasing access”, Ms. Cooke said.
The procedure is known as prequalification and WHO has done it in the past for non-brand vaccines, including those used to treat TB, malaria and HIV.
This had resulted in massive savings for sufferers around the world, with 80 per cent of HIV patients now relying on generic products, Ms. Cooke said.
She noted too that some companies had already committed to lowering prices.
“When (HIV) anti-retrovirals were first produced, the cost per patient per year was $10,000,” she said. “Once we opened prequalification for generic HIV products, the price went down to $300 per year.”
She added: “We’re also confident that competition will bring prices down. That way, countries will have a greater choice of products that are more affordable.”
Today, three manufacturers control most of the global market for insulin, which was discovered as a treatment for diabetes in 1921.