The development of vaccines to fight — and beat — the COVID-19 virus at “Warp Speed” was nothing short of a modern medical miracle. Developed in record time, they have proved effective and remarkably safe.
The side effects are no more than would be expected with any drug and are, doctors agree, much less serious than a full blown case of the corona virus.
And yet, their development seems to be greeted largely with a collective national yawn, or niggling complaints about those rare side effects.
Perhaps it’s because we have grown too used to miracle drugs.
Terrifying childhood diseases — polio, whooping cough, diphtheria — along with a host of others, have been banished from our communities thanks to the heroic efforts of doctors and researchers through the 20th century.
But, before there were any of these, before there was even penicillin, there was this medical breakthrough that has changed millions of lives.
A century ago this month, a doctor, a medical student assisting him and a professor at the University of Toronto managed to isolate a protein produced in the pancreas that earlier research had shown was absent in patients suffering from diabetes, an illness that prevents processing the sugar it needs for energy and allows blood sugar, or glucose, to reach levels that can harm the heart, vision and kidney’s
Earlier experiments had shown that this protein was found in pancreatic nodules called, rather poetically, “the islets of Langerhans.” The name for the substance was derived from “insula” — the Latin word for island — insulin
Within a year insulin was being used to treat diabetics, for whom there had been no cure and no effective treatment up until then. A diagnosis meant what in many cases amounted to a starvation diet under doctor’s orders and the prognosis of an early death.
By the 1970s, drug companies had moved on from animal-derived production to synthesizing insulin on a mass scale.
It’s estimated that between 5% and 10% of the more than 34 million Americans who have some form of diabetes are insulin dependent.
For them, it’s literally the difference between life and death.
And some are afraid they may have to choose.
Over the last 20 years, the costs of insulin have increased sharply. As we note in today’s front page story, the average price of insulin nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013 and then nearly doubled from 2012 to 2016, according to the American Diabetes Association.
For diabetics like Eric Wuesthoff of North Attleboro, the increase is an outrage. “The rising cost of insulin and other vital medications is, to me, infuriating,” he told Sun Chronicle reporter Tom Reilly. “This is a drug that improves the lives of millions of people every day; in my case, I could not survive without it. That a pharmaceutical company can raise prices on something so crucial is inexcusable, the insufficient response from government to this growing crisis is also so frustrating.”
Massachusetts, as several other states have done, has passed a pharmaceutical pricing bill to cap insulin copays at $25 per month, as well as exclude insulin from deductibles.
But the rising prices for this life-saving substance remain inexcusable.
Earlier this year, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, tweeted, “2day Sen Wyden & I released Finance Cmte report on INSULIN costs Prices hv gone THRU THE ROOF for patients/taxpayers bc of manufacturer, health plan & PBM biz practices They make $$ as % of ballooning list price so no incentive to lower price on 100 yr old drug,” according to a report in Politifact.com.
He’s right. But a combination of market forces — thanks to generic versions of insulin — and government oversight could change that in the near future.
For those who suffer from diabetes, that could be a real miracle.