Novo Nordisk’s results are stunning – and it could be on the brink of something even more exciting

Novo Nordisk's results are stunning - and it could be on the brink of something even more exciting

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Novo Nordisk, the maker of anti-diabetes and weight-loss drugs Ozempic and Wegovy, today displayed again why it has become Europe’s biggest company by stock market value during the last year.

The Danish company, for many years the world’s biggest insulin producer, issued another stellar trading update in which it beat investor expectations on a number of fronts.

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Novo Nordisk now expects its sales growth to rise this year by between 19% and 27% – up from the 18% to 26% it was forecasting as recently as January – while it expects profits to grow by between 22% and 30% this year.

That is up from the 21% to 29% it was forecasting previously.

The company reported a net profit of DKK 25.4bn (£2.91bn) for the first three months of 2024 – which was up 28% on the same period last year.

Delve deeper into the numbers and some of the figures Novo revealed today are stunning.

Sales of Wegovy during the period were more than double (up 109% to be precise) on their level in the same period last year.

Read more:
Ozempic to Wegovy – what are the weight loss injections?
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In the United States, which accounts for three-quarters of Novo Nordisk’s global obesity care sales, demand for Wegovy is dramatically outstripping supply – a reason why the company’s parent, Novo Holdings, recently bought the US drug manufacturing firm Catalent in order to step up production for its blockbuster drugs.

Wegovy is now being prescribed on a weekly basis to more than 130,000 Americans, while 25,000 or so new patients are being prescribed the medicine for the first time every week.

Massive market dominance

Perhaps the most stunning statistic of all, in view of the concerns some investors have had about possible competition in weight loss treatments from the US drugs giant Eli Lilly, is that Novo Nordisk now reckons to have an 85.4% share of the global obesity care market.

That dominance, though, is starting to raise the hackles of US politicians and regulators.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has launched an investigation into the pricing of Wegovy and Ozempic.

The committee, whose chair is the left-wing firebrand Bernie Sanders, recently suggested that Americans with Type 2 diabetes were being charged $969 (£777) per month for Ozempic which Canadian patients were paying $155 (£124) and German patients just $59 (£47).

It also claimed that American patients were being charged $1,349 (£1,081) per month for Wegovy while their British counterparts were being charged $92 (£74).

Injector pens for the Wegovy weight loss drug. File pic
Image:
Wegovy injector pens. Pic: Reuters

Is the price right?

Citing a recent study by Yale University, which suggests it costs just $5 (£4) to produce a month’s supply of Wegovy and Ozempic, Mr Sanders said in a letter to the company: “The scientists at Novo Nordisk deserve great credit for developing these drugs that have the potential to be a game changer for millions of Americans struggling with type 2 diabetes and obesity.

“[But] important as these drugs are, they will not do any good for the millions of patients who cannot afford them.”

That argument may not hold, though.

Prices are already coming down as the company steps up production – and will continue to do so – and the drugs become more widely available to patients.

Novo Nordisk can also point out that four in every five Wegovy patients in the US whose medicine bill is covered by their health insurance are paying $25 (£20) or less each month.

It is also worth recalling, in light of this debate, the moral ethos underpinning Novo Nordisk.

The company is controlled by the world’s biggest charitable foundation which insists that a large chunk of the company’s profits are recycled back into research and development.

That came to more than $5bn (£4bn) last year.

Semaglutide injecting pen with lid on a white plate. Pic: iStock.
Image:
A Semaglutide injecting pen. Pic: iStock.

In the quarter just ended, meanwhile, Novo Nordisk spent DKK 8.6bn (£986m) which was up 28% on the same period a year ago.

The company spent 13.2% of its sales on research and development (R&D), up from 12.6% in the same period last year, although that is actually quite low compared with some other companies in the sector.

The US giant Merck spent 50% of its sales last year on R&D, while Roche of Switzerland spent nearly 30% and Britain’s AstraZeneca some 24%.

Over time, some of that spending may pay off.

Although most attention among investors is focused on Novo Nordisk’s weight loss and diabetes treatments, the company is placing bets on other therapy areas, including treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, fatty liver disease and haemophilia.

Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen, Novo Nordisk’s president and chief executive, has also encouraged his scientists to look at other therapy areas where Ozempic and Wegovy might be applied.

He said today: “Within R&D, we are pleased with the positive results from the kidney outcomes trial with semaglutide [the active ingredient within Wegovy] and the label expansion for cardiovascular risk reduction for Wegovy in the US.”

Something even more exciting

In the meantime, though, investors continue to be enthralled by the growth prospects in weight loss.

Novo Nordisk is only treating around one million Americans with obesity – around 1% of the total number of Americans with the condition. And that is just one market. Europe also has the potential to be huge and, as it becomes wealthier, so will China.

And there may be something even more exciting than Wegovy in the pipeline.

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NHS rolls out ‘ground-breaking’ diabetes device

At its recent capital markets day, in March, Novo Nordisk gave more details on Amycretin, an experimental weight loss pill it is working on and which is being touted as potentially even more potent than Wegovy itself.

In a recent phase I study, it was shown as delivering a 13.1% weight loss after 12 weeks, compared with the 6% delivered by Wegovy.

Martin Holst Lange, Novo Nordisk’s executive vice president for development, said last month he felt “very comfortable” suggesting the product could become commercially available “within this decade”.

Novo Nordisk, with a stock market valuation of DKK 3.04 trillion (£348bn), is already the biggest company in Europe.

If it were listed in the US, it would be the 15th largest company in the S&P 500, bigger than the likes of peers such as Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Abbvie, Abbott and Pfizer.

But a fast-busting pill, as opposed to a medicine that is injected, would represent the holy grail in weight loss.

There may be more to come.

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