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One father of a daughter who has type 1 diabetes said reducing the price of insulin would have an “enormous” impact. Getty Images
  • The World Health Organization has launched a program to help reduce the price of insulin worldwide.
  • The project involves a “prequalification” system that makes it easier for companies to get their insulin product to market to help people with diabetes.
  • Experts say it may take some time for the program to get going, but they see it as vital due to the rising rates of diabetes.

One expert calls the rising cost of insulin worldwide an “international scandal.”

In response to the problem, the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) has announced an initiative to expand the amount of insulin available across the globe in an attempt to drive down the costs of the life-saving drug.

“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,” Emer Cooke, director of regulation of medicines and other health technologies at WHO said in a press statement.

Laurence Gerlis, MA, MB, a diabetes expert and chief executive officer of the United Kingdom’s SameDayDoctor, had harsher words for the insulin situation worldwide.

“The price of insulin has become an international scandal,” Gerlis told Healthline. “Insulin was discovered in Canada by [Frederick] Banting and [Charles] Best, who took no money but donated their discovery to the world free of charge. People with diabetes need insulin to survive — they have no choice. In many parts of the world, children with diabetes are allowed to die because insulin is not available.”

The announcement comes on the heels of a WHO forum in South Africa in April calling for “greater transparency around the cost of research and development as well as production of medicines, to allow buyers to negotiate more affordable prices.”

About 100 million people fall into poverty each year because they have to pay for medicines out of pocket, the organization notes.

The WHO will use an approach called “prequalification,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.

“It is an on-going procedure to assess products and manufacturers, focusing on initial assessment (prequalification), on-going monitoring, and requalification,” according to the WHO’s website.

The end result is that companies that want to make a drug have an easier time getting their generic version of these medicines to market, giving them more incentive to invest in manufacturing them in the first place.

The WHO has had prior success using this prequalification system to help reduce the price of HIV drugs, which fell from $10,000 per person per year to $300 per year, according to the organization.

Under pressure from lawmakers and the general public, the three major insulin manufacturers have introduced or expanded existing programs to curb these costs, but the solution is far from comprehensive.

“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 if it really is increasing access,” Cooke said.

The WHO’s successful track record with the price of HIV drugs doesn’t necessarily mean the same success will apply to insulin prices.

Nonetheless, Cooke is optimistic.

“We’re confident that competition will bring prices down,” Cooke said. “That way, countries will have a greater choice of products that are more affordable.”

“The WHO is absolutely right to try to reduce the price,” Gerlis said. “There is no downside to their efforts and they are likely to succeed.”

But those price reductions might be a long time coming, said Sami Inkinen, MS, MBA, chief executive officer and co-founder of Virta Health, an online clinic that helps people with type 2 diabetes reduce their reliance on insulin and even “reverse” their diabetes.

First, Inkinen told Healthline, the program has to be developed and then obtain buy-in from manufacturers.

There then has to be a production start and the drugs must be brought to market before price reductions can happen.

“They are likely to eventually see success, but [while] it may make a life-saving medication more affordable to people who truly need it, it doesn’t do anything to slow the epidemic itself,” he said. “I’d like to see WHO focus on disease reversal and addressing the epidemic itself. This is something they have already acknowledged and explored, and it’s what many are working on, including Virta Health.”

Finally, the WHO might expect legal challenges in some countries, but that shouldn’t prevent them from trying, said Jason Pierce, an accountant at Edelstein & Company LLP in Boston.

“I hope for the best,” said Pierce, whose daughter has type 1 diabetes. “The impact itself would be enormous.”

And it makes good economic sense, too.

“People who have access to affordable insulin have the ability to live normal productive lives without the financial stress of paying hundreds of dollars per month to manage the disease,” Pierce told Healthline. “Inadequate maintenance of the disease leads to more costly health problems down the road.”