By Maggie Fick and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) -Novo Nordisk aims to convince Europeans governments to pay for its obesity drug Wegovy for the most overweight or those with co-morbidities, its CEO said on Friday, emphasising both the medical and cost benefits of the treatment.
CEO Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen's comments were the most detailed yet on the drugmaker's strategy for expanding in Europe, where most countries have public healthcare systems.
"In Europe, we would aim to seek reimbursement for those patients with the highest BMI, have co-morbidities, and perhaps also those less fortunate from a socio-economic point of view," he told a Reuters Newsmaker event, adding such people were often "among those who consume the highest cost in healthcare systems."
Wegovy is the first-to-market in a new class of highly effective weight-loss drugs. Used alongside changes to diet and exercise, it leads to an average weight loss of around 15%.
The self-injection drug has transformed the fortunes of Novo, whose shares have surged about 165% since Wegovy's U.S. launch two years ago. It has also captured the attention of patients, investors and even celebrities.
Earlier this month, the Danish drugmaker raised its full-year profit and sales forecasts for a second time.
Jorgensen said his company, now the second most valuable in Europe, was in uncharted territory.
"This is a very unusual situation to be in for a pharmaceutical company because typically when you launch medicines, you have a relatively well defined population that you're going to serve," Jorgensen said.
"We're dealing with perhaps a billion patients around the world," he said, adding it would "take quite some years" before the company can satisfy the whole market.
Analysts estimate the obesity market could be worth as much as $100 billion by the end of the decade as the race to develop weight-loss drugs heats up.
The lion's share may be claimed by frontrunners Novo and its U.S. rival Eli Lilly and Co. Amgen, Pfizer and smaller biotech companies are also developing weight-loss drugs.
Since its launch in June 2021, Wegovy has been flying off the shelves in the United States, where more than 40% of the population is obese. But Novo has struggled to keep up with demand even as it has added production capacity.
That experience, coupled with the subsequent launches in Denmark and Norway, has taught the company that it is crucial to work with health authorities to get Wegovy to the patients most in need, because governments will not be able to pay for everyone in their population who is obese to take the drug.
"We can see that the demand for the medicine is so strong, that we actually have to be more intentional in how we get through to the patients we would like to get through to and how we collaborate with healthcare systems," Jorgensen said.
But it so far appears that many people are willing to pay out of their own pockets for Wegovy, he added.
Jorgensen said Novo would introduce Wegovy in more countries, but did not say where or when and added it was "trying to constrain all these launches" to make them manageable.
Earlier this month, a late-stage, large-scale trial showed Wegovy also has a clear cardiovascular benefit, giving a boost to Novo's hopes of positioning it as more than a lifestyle drug.
Jorgensen said that regulators and doctors had contacted the company in the intervening weeks "to understand more what the data entailed".
Further positive heart data was also released on Friday.
The trial results may help persuade U.S. insurers and cost-conscious health authorities in Europe to cover the cost of the weekly injection, priced at $1,300 a month in the United States, for a wider range of patients.
Novo has also had problems with its contract manufacturer. Reuters reported in July that Catalent's factory in Brussels that fills Wegovy injection pens had repeatedly breached U.S. sterile-safety rules in recent years and staff had failed to perform required quality checks.
Jorgensen said he was confident Catalent would resolve its problems and that he hoped to have a third external facility filling and finishing the injection pens by 2024.
Last month, Novo launched Wegovy in Germany, its first big European market. Wegovy is also available in Norway and Denmark.
(Reporting by Maggie Fick and Jacob Gronholt-PedersenEditing by Josephine Mason and Mark Potter)