Brexit Forces Biggest Insulin Supplier to Turn to the Skies

(Bloomberg) -- Bracing for a chaotic Brexit, the world’s biggest maker of insulin has reserved space on airplanes and plans to boost stockpiles further to ensure diabetes patients in the U.K. don’t run out of the life-saving medicine.

Novo Nordisk A/S, the Danish drugmaker, booked some air-freight slots to prepare for the possibility of significant border delays, Pinder Sahota, its U.K. general manager, said in an interview. The company also is aiming to increase stockpiles of insulin to as much as 18 weeks by the end of March, from seven weeks typically.

Europe’s pharma industry is framing the Brexit debacle as a possible issue of life and death. The prospect of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union without a deal creates “very real, tangible and immediate threats to patient safety,” the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations said in a statement Wednesday.

The U.K. Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal raised the risk that the country will crash out of the EU without a deal.

Logistics Headache

Novo, which started planning for different Brexit scenarios about three years ago, is joining other companies in pushing the government to open up other entry points to relieve pressure on the key port of Dover, England, and look at prioritizing medical supplies, according to Sahota. Novo said in November that its preparations included raising stockpiles to about 16 weeks.

“While we have stockpiled, the issue then from a supply point of view is how quickly can we replenish that stockpile, because we anticipate there could be some delays,” he said. “This is a major logistical challenge for the industry.”

Novo’s Paris-based rival Sanofi is also augmenting its U.K. supplies to about 16 weeks on average and testing two alternative routes into the country, one from the Netherlands to the east coast and another from France to the south coast, said Hugo Fry, managing director of the U.K. business.

The drugs industry has long warned that medicine shortages might occur if shipments pile up at the border. Most of Novo’s products rely on cold storage and must be kept carefully within a certain temperature range, compounding the challenge. Bayer AG of Germany said it faces similar stockpiling constraints, especially for medicines like the prostate cancer drug Xofigo, which contains a radioactive substance.

The Danish company plans to review whether it needs to secure more air-freight slots, Sahota said. Someone with a form of diabetes known as type 1 that often arises in childhood might face life-threatening side effects within a day of stopping insulin, according to the charity Diabetes U.K.

The pharma lobby group EFPIA called for a variety of measures to help cushion the transition. They include exempting medicines and clinical-trial materials from new customs and border checks and introducing measures to continue to recognize U.K.-based testing, which would enable the U.K. to keep participating in shared platforms for safety data on medicines and public health.

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