26. Apr 2022

A Foundation is Born

A Foundation is Born

Lars Rebien Sørensen
Former Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Rebien Sørensen recalls the access to medicines debate – and the story before that story – that led to the creation of WDF.

This article was originally published on the occasion of WDF's 20th anniversary on WDF20.org

When we talk about the origins of the World Diabetes Foundation, there’s a lot of focus on the conflict that set it in motion – and rightly so. 

In 2001, there was a public debate around access to HIV medications. Novo Nordisk and 40 other pharmaceutical companies took legal action to block a South African law that would effectively suspend patent rights. 

Perhaps it wasn’t the brightest thing to do. But as the company’s new CEO I believed that we had to do it for reasons of principle. Patents were at the heart of what the company was about. We quickly reached a settlement. More importantly, we learned from the conflict that we needed to create a vehicle where people with diabetes in developing countries had a chance to fight that disease. I wanted to be sure that in the future, we would not be taken on the wrong foot when it came to our main business - creating access to diabetes care.

Something very, very important came out of the South Africa conflict. In 2002, Novo Nordisk shareholders voted that we could take some of their profits and put them into creating the World Diabetes Foundation. 

But there’s a story before that story. 

Photo by Jesper Westley

Before I took over as CEO, I went on a world tour to see Novo Nordisk’s affiliates and markets up close. Along the way, we stopped in several low and middle-income countries. What I saw there shocked me. Despite having been in the diabetes business for decades, I hadn’t fully understood how little access to basic diabetes care there was in many countries. 

People were being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes way too late, leading to amputations, to blindness. Children with type 1 diabetes weren’t being diagnosed at all. They were dying as a result.

Photo courtesy of CNN Principal Voices

I experienced first-hand the great tragedy it can be for an individual to get diabetes in a poor country. And I thought, we have the knowledge, we have the medications, we cannot sit and wait. To me it was only natural that Novo Nordisk should take upon itself an extraordinary re-sponsibility to fight diabetes in the poorest countries. Then, the South Africa conflict happened, and that idea became a reality.


The World Diabetes Foundation was independent from Novo Nordisk – that was essential. But the Board had two seats reserved for Novo Nordisk appointees, and I took one of them. From that vantage point, I was able to watch the Foundation grow. 

The focus was on finding good partners – strong, locally-rooted organisations with good ideas that we could support. Sustainability was also very important. For each clinic we set up, we educated staff to make sure they would keep going after WDF funding ended. 

Photo by Jesper Westley

I stayed on the WDF Board until 2015. It was amazing to see this small foundation grow into a leading global funder of diabetes prevention and care projects. I am so impressed with what the Foundation has achieved in its first 20 years.

Unfortunately, there’s more need for it now than ever. More than 75% of the 537 million peo-ple with diabetes live in low- and middle-income countries, according to the International Diabetes Federation. 

I am proud to have been a part of creating the World Diabetes Foundation and helping it develop. I look forward to seeing its impact in the years ahead. 

Lars Rebien Sørensen was CEO of Novo Nordisk A/S from 2000-2016.