It’s been predicted that at least 98 million people in India will be diagnosed with diabetes by the year 2030 and most of them will be dependent on insulin to control their sugar levels. Recently Bengaluru-based biopharmaceutical company Biocon announced that it will be reducing the price of recombinant-human insulin for low and middle income countries (LMIC). The company is making insulin directly sourced from it and available for procurement by the government, starting at a rate of Rs 7 (less than 10 US cents) per day. This now poses an important question: Will making insulin available at a lower price truly be a gamechanger for diabetics?
Pharmaceutical companies had stated when synthetic human insulin was first introduced that the cost of the hormone would come down. However, it has been nearly a decade since the last time insulin costs were reduced.
Dr V Mohan, Chief Diabetologist of Dr Mohans’ Diabetes Speciality Centre in Chennai notes that if the price of insulin is indeed reduced to around Rs 7, it would greatly benefit those who depend on insulin for survival.
“The issue has never been about supply. Ever since the introduction of synthetic human insulin on the market, we have not had to worry about the stocks so much as the cost. The cost of insulin is what has made it difficult for many people to access,” he says. Today, an individual requiring insulin may shell out up to Rs 150 per vial of insulin on average, if the costs were reduced drastically to Rs 7, this would significantly improve the accessibility of the hormone to those in need," the doctor notes.
He isn’t the only one that feels this way. Members from the All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN) have also stated that while reducing the cost of the hormone would greatly aid those who require it, the fact that Biocon is providing insulin at this cost to the government and not to retailers directly is noteworthy.
“We don’t know yet how this will be implemented so at this point we cannot say how this will impact individuals who need insulin. However, of the different types of insulin available on the market, if the human recombinant variant is made more affordable for people, it will go a long way in tackling the diabetes epidemic in the country,” says Dr Nalini K, a member of AIDAN. Human recombinant insulin is made using genetic engineering technology and is essentially the same in genetic makeup as insulin sourced from people.
There are different forms of insulin which are currently available on the market, of which human insulin is largely preferred. When human insulin was first synthesised and made available for diabetics in 1978, it was a crucial point in the history of diabetes. Prior to that, the insulin that had been available on the market was largely sourced from animals, which is still held as possibly causing allergic reactions.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, philanthropist and founder of Biocon, had first spoken about the company’s plans to make recombinant human insulin (genetically synthesised) at the reduced costs at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September.
“Biocon will make its recombinant human insulin available at less than 10 cents per day in low and middle income countries. These countries contribute to 80 percent of the global diabetes burden. In comparison, the current US list price in retail is more than 5 dollars a day or more,” she said.
This is not the first time that a manufacturer has attempted to reduce the cost of insulin. Companies like Novo-Nordisk and Eli Lilly have also worked towards bringing down the price of insulin even as early as 2012.
Several people are dependent on insulin to treat their diabetes. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas which helps the body break down and use sugar (glucose) or store the glucose for a later time. The hormone works by attaching itself to the glucose molecules present in the blood and works to break them down. Oral medications such as metformin and glibenclamide are also used to control sugars. Unlike insulin, oral medications general act by reducing the amount of glucose that is produced by the body (mainly in the liver).