Bio-hacking collective Four Thieves Vinegar has shown that you can make your own DIY EpiPen for only US$35. The experiment was carried out due to mounting public outrage for Mylan — the producer of EpiPen — overpricing the device by almost 500% since acquiring the patent. The US state of West Virginia has also announced that it is investigating Mylan for Medicaid fraud.
Back in 2007, pharmaceutical company Mylan was acquiring manufacturing rights for the EpiPen. Basically, EpiPens are last resort devices filled with epinephrine (adrenaline), designed to be as easy to use as possible in an emergency situation. They jump-start the body during a severe allergic reaction and save a lot of lives each day. When it first hit the market, each piece cost around 57$, but since then their price soared to 315$ — a 461% increase. If we were talking about iPhones, for example, it wouldn’t be so bad. First of all, you can survive without one. Then there’s the fact that you can just buy a competitor product instead.
But an EpiPen is vital. Many people suffering from allergies need to keep one handy at all times or risk dying from anaphylactic shock from something as inconsequential as bee sting or a bit of a peanut. And, compounding the problem, there isn’t anyone else manufacturing a similar product.
So people face a pretty grim decision — buy from Mylan of risk being killed by a trace amount of legume.
Needless to say this didn’t sit well with people, most of whom simply couldn’t afford the devices even if they wanted to buy them. West Virginia has announced that it’s launching an investigation into Mylan for Medicaid fraud. Faced with the legal and public backlash over these price increases, Mylan announced that they plan to release a generic version of the EpiPen which would cost “only” 150$ per injection. Industry specialists were quick to point out for NBC News that this apparent act of goodwill is less altruistic when you consider that making an EpiPen would only cost around 30$.
Truth or corporate rivalry?
One group unaffiliated with the pharmaceutical industry, a bio-hacking collective called Four Thieves Vinegar, wanted to test out the claim for themselves. They proved that you can build your very own DIY EpiPen — which they call the “EpiPencil” because lawsuits are expensive — for around 35$. They claim it works just as well as the commercially available version, although I don’t recommend you try it at home — it can be quite a dangerous tool.
The main difference between the two pens is that you have to measure the correct dose of epinephrine before using the DIY version.
“We’ve gotten many requests to do something about the EpiPen, so we have,” says Michael Laufer, New York City University mathematics PhD and one of the founders of Four Thieves Vinegar.
“We developed the EpiPencil, which is an epinephrine auto-injector built entirely from off-the-shelf parts, which can be assembled in a matter of minutes for just over $30.”
The biggest roadblock for competitors to market a similar device as the EpiPen is the patent. Mylan holds the rights on the auto-injecting device up until 2025. Epinephrine itself is widely available and really cheap, but getting a similar (or any, in fact) delivery system past the FDA has proven impossible up to now.
“[There’s] fear of creating a device that doesn’t work reliably, and a regulatory process that makes getting products to market incredibly difficult,” writes Jamie Condliffe for the MIT Technology Review.
Without a real competitor on the market, Mylan can just increase the price as it sees fit. Which isn’t OK.
“You know there are people who are just not buying an EpiPen because they can’t afford it,” Laufer told The Parallax. “That’s unconscionable.”
If all else fails
The Four Thieves have published a video and fully downloadable instructions on how to build the DIY EpiPencil at home.
I can’t stress this enough though — this is an unregulated device. It hasn’t passed the same clinical trials and peer-review process drugs and similar devices spend years of their development going through. Mess up the dosage a bit and it may not work, or downright kill you. So I can’t recommend you use this at home.
“It’s essential to remember that epinephrine auto-injectors are life-saving products, and it is critical that they are made to a high standard of quality so patients can rely on them to work safely and effectively,” said US Food and Drug Administration spokesperson, Theresa Eisenman, in the Parallax article.
However, as proof that Mylan is definitely inflating the price of its EpiPens, Four Thieves Vinegar certainly made their point. Considering that they spent 35$ to make a single device — with non-bulk parts — the mass-produced version should be even cheaper.
Just a quick reminder that no one should have to pay through the nose for life-saving medicine.