Insulin Pens are Safer, More Practical, and Cheaper – but ‘Grossly Overpriced’
Insulin supplementation is the daily reality for diabetes patients. Lower prices for insulin pens could make their everyday reality easier.

Insulin pens are more affordable and preferred by diabetics but they are available almost exclusively in high-income countries due to gross overpricing, according to a report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and T1International, a British NGO fighting for equal treatment access for people with diabetes type 1.

The research was presented on Wednesday, ahead of the fourth Symposium on Diabetes in Humanitarian Crises happening in Athens late this week, which is hosted by the International Alliance for Diabetes Action (IADA).

“In Lebanon, offering pens to people with diabetes in our care has had a significant and positive impact on their quality of life, especially for children who are more likely to stick to their treatment schedule with the easier-to-use and less painful pens,” said Dr Sawsan Yaacoub, Paediatrician for MSF in Lebanon, where insulin pens were implemented instead of the traditional treatment administering with syringes and vials of insulin.

Numerous benefits of using insulin pens instead of the traditional syringe and vial make it a preferred choice for a vast majority of patients

The pens offered many advantages, especially to young patients, MSF evaluated. They make it easier to inject insulin, calculate doses and they induce less pain during the procedure, they are also more practical in terms of transport and stocking. Thanks to their advantages, children and adolescents participating in MSF’s programme in Lebanon were more likely to stick to the prescribed injection schedule.

Growing burden

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin produced. 

Type 1 diabetes (insulin-dependent) is a deficient insulin production of the organism and requires daily administration of insulin.

There were 529 million people living with diabetes worldwide in 2021, as a Lancet study found. According to WHO, the number increased five-fold, from 108 million, in the four last decades.

The disease and accompanying conditions are a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation. Diabetes and kidney disease alone accounted for two million deaths in 2019.


The diabetes burden is increasing for low- and middle-income countries, but, as MSF pointed out, the treatment options offered there are limited and old-fashioned.

MSF and T1International’s survey found that 82% of over 400 respondents in 38 countries preferred insulin pens when compared with injecting insulin with a syringe.

The pens could also be a more affordable option. “We have shown that it could be more affordable to use insulin pens instead of the old-fashioned vials and syringes,” said Dr Helen Bygrave, a Non-communicable Diseases Advisor for MSF.

MSF’s research into the cost of production shows that analogue insulin pens, offering more durable insulin without having to keep it refrigerated, could be sold at a profit for $111 per patient per year, including insulin cartridge and the pen itself. 

This technology is widely used in high-income countries, contrary to the human insulin administered with syringes, which is the standard in low-income settings as it is sold for a lower price.

MSF argues that the production of analogue insulin and insulin pens is 30% cheaper than the alternative. It is the selling prices that make insulin pens inaccessible. Each long-acting analogue insulin pen costs $2.98 in South Africa, $7.88 in India and $28.40 in the US, compared to the cost-based price of $1.30.

“No matter where a person lives in the world, they should be able to have equal access to their preferred diabetes care option,” Bygrave added.

The situation is similar to that of new diabetes drugs, GLP-1 agonists, which increase the feeling of satiety, helping patients to curb obesity. 

Semaglutide, a commonly used diabetes drug, could be sold at a profit for just $0.89 per month – a daunting difference from its cost in a pharmacy: $115 per month in South Africa, $230 in Latvia, and $353 or more in the US, which is 400,000% higher than the estimated generic price.

Near-monopoly dictates prices

The main manufacturer of GLP-1 drugs, Novo Nordisk, has recently faced a hearing in the US Senate about the gigantic markup it imposes on the market.

Due to intellectual property rights restraints, only three firms are currently providing insulin: Sanofi, Novo Nordisk and Elly Lily. The two latter ones are the only producers of GLP-1 medicine.

Price comparison and the difference between the sales prices and the ones based on production costs, according to MSF’s estimates.

Numerous benefits of using insulin pens instead of the traditional syringe and vial make it a preferred choice for a vast majority of patients

Despite their limited capacity making it difficult for them to meet the demand worldwide, the firms is still blocking generic manufacturers from entering the market.

“Pharmaceutical corporations Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi must drop their insulin pen prices now, and at the same time, humanitarian agencies need to start procuring insulin pens and more systematically integrating them into the diabetes care they provide,” said Bygrave. 

As gross overpricing stands on the way to improved diabetic care, the new report shows clearly the production costs are not the reason behind it.

 “There is really no excuse for today’s double standard in diabetes care to continue,” Bygrave added.

“We firmly believe that every person with diabetes should have affordable access to the insulin and delivery device that is best for their body,” Elizabeth Pfiester, T1International’s Founder said.

Image Credits: WHO, MSF.

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