Insulin is certainly a wonder drug. It has saved millions of lives since it was discovered nearly a century ago. But there is a problem. Insulin can be expensive — so much so that people have died because they can’t afford it. In the United States, the price of a 10-milliliter vial of insulin has gone up in the last 20 years from $35 to $275, but even in countries where the price is comparatively low, it remains unaffordable because incomes are also low. According to a recent study by Health Action International, “access to insulin is beyond the reach of millions of people with diabetes around the world.”
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To address this problem, the World Health Organization (WHO), an agency of the United Nations, has just announced a pilot program aimed at increasing the supply of insulin worldwide. One of the main reasons for the high cost of insulin is that it is largely made by three major manufacturers. In the initiative, which will be rolled out over the next two years, WHO will use its Prequalification program to encourage manufacturers of generic insulin to have WHO assess their products.
The WHO originally launched its Prequalification project in 2001 to expedite access to medicines that met certain standards for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, but it has since expanded to include other therapeutics. Manufacturers who want their medicines to be put on the prequalified products list need first to apply and then to allow assessment teams to evaluate their products for safety, quality and effectiveness and to inspect their manufacturing sites. With this newly announced initiative, makers of generic insulin can now participate in the process. According to Mariângela Simão, MD, WHO Assistant Director General for Medicines and Health products, “Prequalifying products from additional companies will hopefully help to level the playing field and ensure a steadier supply of quality insulin in all countries.”
While announcing the inclusion of insulin manufacturers in the Prequalification program, the WHO also said that it was exploring other diabetes projects, such as updating treatment guidelines, developing price-reduction strategies and improving delivery systems.
Want to learn more about saving money on insulin? Read “Insulin Prices: Four Ways to Pay Less” and “Cheaper Insulin: Older Insulins May Be Answers to High Prices.”
A freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area, Gustaitis has a degree in journalism from Columbia University.