Bloomberg News

WHO Should Buy Diabetes Drugs in Bulk for Poor, Novo CEO Says

September 06, 2011

Sept. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The World Health Organization should buy low-cost diabetes treatments in bulk on behalf of the poorest countries to ensure they get the lowest price, the head of the world’s largest insulin maker said.

Most low- and middle-income countries pay too much for the medicines because they order relatively small amounts and few manufacturers bid for the tenders, Lars Rebien Soerensen, chief executive officer of Novo Nordisk A/S, said in an interview in London yesterday.

Diabetes afflicts 346 million people worldwide, and more than 80 percent of deaths from the disease occur in poorer nations, according to the Geneva-based WHO, the United Nations’ health agency. The UN General Assembly will meet in New York from Sept. 19 to 20 to plan a response to the impact of diabetes and other non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

“If the WHO, if the global community, is concerned about the poorest countries’ access to insulin, why don’t they buy it on behalf of the poorest countries?” Soerensen said. “We’d be tickled pink.”

Soerensen said he’s “not very optimistic” about the report likely to come out of the conference because it will recommend ambitious targets that will be difficult to meet. Governments around the world are reducing health spending as the effects of the economic crisis linger.

“Who’s going to stand in the wings with a lot of funds to live up to some ambitious targets?” he said. “They’re going to be difficult to implement because they’re basically a matter of building health-care capacity, and you know how long that takes, and how difficult it is to sell to the public.”


Novo, based in Bagsvaerd, Denmark, sells older, cheaper versions of insulin in developing nations. For richer countries it’s developing more advanced versions of the hormone such as the experimental treatment degludec. The company plans to file for regulatory approval of that treatment in the U.S. by the end of this year, and expects approval by the end of 2012, Soerensen said.

About seven in 10 diabetes patients in developed countries now get Sanofi’s Lantus to control their blood sugar levels, and three get Novo’s older product Levemir, Soerensen said. He’s betting degludec will reverse that ratio because it can be taken at any time of day, whereas Lantus, a so-called basal insulin, must be injected at the same time every day.

“Degludec is the key fundamental question for the company,” Soerensen said. “We will start to become competitive in the basal segment that has been gaining globally because of the success of Sanofi.”

--Editors: Kristen Hallam, Phil Serafino

To contact the reporter on this story: Simeon Bennett in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at

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