The major flaw in the EpiPen's design 07.02.19

Written by  Joe Lloyd

EpiPen by QuotecatalogEpiPen by Quotecatalog

There are some objects whose aesthetics are a transgression against taste. There are others whose failed functionality is criminal.

The EpiPen — the dominant brand of adrenaline auto-injector, an essential device for millions of allergy sufferers that forestalls the fatal effects of an anaphylactic shock — is neither of these things. Although far from attractive, it has little need to be. Somewhat larger than a fountain pen, it can be cumbersome and easy to forget. But these mild sins are vastly outbalanced by its usefulness. Occasional stories about devices failing, though unhappy, are remarkable because they are so rare.

The trouble with EpiPens stems from a counterintuitive source: the ingenuity of their design. The EpiPen is not a typology. It is a patented fusion of drug and device, whose design is the legal property of a single company. It is so minutely engineered to be very difficult to replicate in functionality without hewing too close to imitation. Anything that comes close will face a losing lawsuit. This might be a just process when it comes to, say, a counterfeit Vitra chair, but one that becomes cruel when the design in question exists to save lives.

Alternative designs following a similar model have no guarantee of matching the EpiPen’s efficiency and consistency: in the US, the last major attempt was barred for failing to control dosage. And those who would create an entirely different product with the same function have to contend with the familiarity that sufferers and those proximate to them have with the EpiPen. Learning a new process on the fly could waste invaluable seconds.

The EpiPen would be less troubling if it was inexpensive and readily available. In the UK, they cost a little less than £50. But this is not the case in less regulated markets. Since pharma giant Mylan bought the patent in 2007, its US price has skyrocketed calamitously, from $50 each to over $600 for a two-pack: a price gouge that preys upon the allergic person’s reliance on a single design. The real value of an EpiPen is a mere $24.

And expense is not the only issue. Mylan contracts the manufacture of the EpiPen to fellow corporation Pfizer. Last May, errors in the Pfizer factory led to an international shortage which continues to the present day, depriving sufferers of the ability to purchase new EpiPens. Given that they have a slated one-year lifespan before the adrenaline becomes unusable, each passing month makes the drought more acute, entrenching the EpiPen’s position as a symbol of the evils of treating medical objects like any other design.

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