By John Miller

ZURICH (Reuters) – Swiss drugmaker Novartis aims to become a big player in supplying insulin to swelling numbers of diabetics, signing a deal with China’s Gan & Lee on versions of three blockbuster brands as the U.S. government is seeking to slash insulin costs.

Novartis said on Wednesday its Sandoz generics unit is targeting Sanofi’s Lantus (glargine), with about $6 billion in annual sales, Novo Nordisk’s NovoLog (aspart) with about $3.2 billion, and Eli Lilly’s Humalog (lispro), whose sales are some $2.9 billion.

Sandoz will handle commercializing biosimilar, or near-copy, versions of these medicines around the world, while Gan & Lee will develop and manufacture them.

Novartis’s announcement comes after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcement this month of changes meant to bring down insulin prices that have been escalating, crimping access and harming health.

Additionally, Sanofi’s efforts to protect Lantus patents were rejected last week by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, amid a challenge from generic drugmaker Mylan whose versions of Lantus under FDA review.

“Sandoz has significant experience disrupting and transforming the healthcare landscape with off-patent medicines,” Novartis said.

“With a majority of insulin therapy offered by just a few companies, healthcare systems and the insulin supply are under increasing pressure to meet the growing demands.”

Gan & Lee, founded in 1998, focuses on insulin production and already makes versions of Lantus and Humalog, according to its website.

The World Health Organisation estimates 400 million people worldwide have diabetes, a population seen expanding by more than a fifth by 2030 as people eat richer foods and have lifestyles that may put them at risk.

(Reporting by John Miller; editing by Jason Neely and Louise Heavens)