California: A vial of insulin cost $25 in 1995 when Chris Noble was five years old and learning to manage type 1 diabetes with his parents and doctors’ help. Nearly three decades later, Noble says a single vial of insulin costs more than $300 — a 12-fold increase without him and millions more like him.
“It’s as essential as water,” Noble said.
Health care advocates have lamented for years that insulin, while inexpensive to produce, is held hostage by the American health care system as companies monopolize and maximize profits.
With many insulin patents nearing expiration dates, California is looking to disrupt that market by making its own insulin and selling it at a much cheaper price. Last month, after a few years of study, state lawmakers approved $100 million for the project, with $50 million devoted to developing three types of insulin and setting aside the rest to invest in a manufacturing facility.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers still have many details, including contracting with a private company to do most of the work. But the budget was a put-his-money-where-his-mouth-is moment for Newsom, who has been calling for the state to launch its brand of generic drugs to lower the overall price of the medication.
“Nothing epitomizes market failures more than the cost of insulin,” Newsom said in a video posted to his Twitter account. “California is now taking matters into our own hands.”
This wouldn’t be the first time California has made its own medicine. In 1990, about half of all cases of infant botulism — a rare illness that affects the large intestine — were in California. The California Department of Public Health got a federal grant to develop and test a treatment. The treatment won federal approval in 2003, and California has made it since.
But the market for infant botulism treatments is small, with about 110 cases reported each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One course of California’s botulism treatment costs more than $57,000, according to a legislative analysis.
Meanwhile, about 7 million people in the United States require insulin to manage their diabetes. The human body converts most of the food we eat into sugar. The pancreas then produces insulin, which converts that sugar into energy. People who have diabetes don’t produce enough insulin. People with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day to survive.
Insulin was first discovered in 1920s by a team of Canadian scientists. They sold the patent to the University of Toronto for just $1, hoping the school would license the product to multiple companies to prevent a monopoly that would lead to high prices.