There’s been a bit of a row this week after one of the UK’s senior health regulators issued a stark warning over what a no-deal Brexit could mean for the supply of medicines.
Sir Michael Rawlins, the chair of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, told the Pharmaceutical Journal on Friday:
“We make no insulin in the UK. We import every drop of it. You can’t transport insulin around ordinarily because it must be temperature-controlled. And there are 3.5 million people [with diabetes, some of whom] rely on insulin, not least the Prime Minister.”
But is that really true? And what do we know about what a no-deal Brexit could mean for insulin supplies?
How much do we import?
Mr Rawlins said that we “make no insulin in the UK.” Strictly speaking, that’s not quite true.
There is one company – Wockhardt UK – that produces animal-based insulin at its site in Wrexham. They estimate that their products are used by about 1,500 to 2,000 patients a year.
But that’s less than half of one percent of the 421,000 people who rely on insulin in the UK (according to an estimate from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink in 2010).
So where does everyone else get theirs from? We spoke to the UK’s other leading suppliers of insulin – Sanofi, Novo Nordisk and Lilly.
Sanofi told us that the company “does not manufacture insulin in the UK. All of our insulins are manufactured in Frankfurt.” Novo Nordisk told us that its insulin is made in Denmark and France. Lilly told us that they don’t make insulin in the UK either.
What could this mean for insulin supplies after Brexit?
It’s fair to say that many in the pharmaceutical industry have not welcomed the prospect of the UK’s departure from the EU.
Soon after the referendum in 2016, the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA UK), which represents medical suppliers in the UK, wrote an open letter to the government, warning of the “significant consequences for the NHS medicines supply chain” if Brexit negotiations weren’t handled properly.
But what does the industry say now?
A spokesperson for HDA UK told FactCheck today that: “we are aware of proposals by the government and manufacturers to develop plans for stockpiling medicines of all types as a ‘buffer stock’ in the event of a ‘no deal Brexit’.”
He added: “The UK medicines supply chain has an inbuilt resilience and flexibility, which is now being supported by the plans for a ‘buffer stock’”, which he described as “sensible planning”.
It’s a similar story from the individual suppliers of insulin. Novo Nordisk – which produces its insulin in Denmark and France – told FactCheck that the company is “is in the process of planning for future contingencies however, at present, we do not anticipate stock shortages.”
Wockhardt UK – which seems to be the only supplier not to make its insulin overseas – told us they “would like to clarify that Brexit will have no effect on the manufacture of Hypurin insulin in Wrexham, Wales.”
We asked the government what they’re doing to secure insulin supplies in the event of a no-deal Brexit. A spokesperson said: “Insulin is vitally important to millions of people in this country. While we are confident of reaching a deal we will have contingency plans in place that maintain the right levels of supplies so there is no disruption to patients.”
After his interview on Friday, Mr Rawlins issued a further statement acknowledging that his comments were made before the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced the government’s contingency plans. Those plans include securing insulin supplies. Mr Rawlins said that “the Department of Health and Social Care is working to make sure the health sector and industry are prepared and that people’s health will be safeguarded.”
Sir Michael Rawlins, the chair of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said on Friday that the UK did not produce any insulin, and raised concerns that a no-deal Brexit could disrupt supply of this vital medicine.
It’s not true to say that we don’t produce any insulin whatsoever in the UK. However, it looks like the amount we do make here serves less than one per cent of the Brits who rely on insulin. And indeed, the small amount of insulin that is produced in the UK is made from pigs and cows, rather than human cells.
But more importantly, the companies that do supply the bulk of UK patients – even with products manufactured overseas – have told us that they don’t expect significant problems with supply in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
After his interview on Friday, Mr Rawlins issued a further statement acknowledging that his comments were made before the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced the government’s contingency plans.