Eli Lilly talks up 'long-term' game plan for tirzepatide launch, but don't expect major sales early on

Eli Lilly is taking the long view when it comes to the potential launch of its megablockbuster diabetes hopeful tirzepatide, and it's focusing on access programs to ensure patients can get their hands on the drug without big out-of-pocket costs.



Speaking to analysts during a call after its full-year financials, Mike Mason, chief of Lilly diabetes, said that the company is "playing for the long term" as it approaches the tirzepatide launch, "making sure that we set the foundations up strongly for long-term success.”


Tirzepatide carries high hopes at Lilly and with investors and analysts, despite the fact that it will launch into a competitive field with formidable rivals from Novo Nordisk. It's expected to hit almost $5 billion in peak sales as it jockeys with Novo's GLP-1 blockbusters—and not just in diabetes, but obesity, where trial data are expected soon.


Trying to speed up the initial launch phase doesn’t really work in diabetes, Mason said. “When you have a retail product like this that goes to nearly 100,000 primary care physicians, as well as needing broad access, there's little that you can do to really accelerate the launch in the first six months.”


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The main plan at this point is working with payers to open up access to the drug and rolling out support programs so “patients will have a good out-of-pocket experience at launch,” he said.



“And so, I wouldn't look for the first six months to see a real accelerated uptake of net revenue versus other GLPs," he advised.



Instead, that first six months will center on “laying the strong foundations” and “driving awareness through a broad subset of physicians.”


Tirzepatide works as a dual GIP and GLP-1 agonist and has been acing trials left and right over the past few years, helping type 2 diabetes patients keep their blood sugar levels and weight down.


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The drug was sent in for FDA review toward the end of 2021, with a potential approval likely in the middle of this year.   



“The tirzepatide submission in the U.S. is going quite well, no surprises in that,” Mason added, as it barrels toward that decision.



And it’s a massive one for the pharma: Analysts at Evaluate Vantage see a huge $4.9 billion in peak annual sales for the drug and believe it is the second-largest drug launch to happen this year in terms of revenue potential. In that ranking it follows another Lilly asset, the Alzheimer’s hopeful donanemab, which could hit the $6 billion sales mark at peak.



RELATED: JPM 2022: Eli Lilly CEO mulls using Novo's double-branding trick on tirzepatide—one obesity, one diabetes



Tirzepatide's main rival in the competitive diabetes field—one Lilly knows well as the maker of multiple insulins and treatments—is Novo Nordisk’s GLP-1 drug Ozempic, a drug that already makes around $3.4 billion a year and is set to reach a peak of about $8 billion.



Ozempic's active ingredient, semaglutide, has racked up other approvals since Ozempic's launch as well, including obesity, where it is marketed as Wegovy, and in a tablet form, marketed separately as Rybelsus.



Lilly, however, is going all in. The pharma already has a sizable diabetes commercial team thanks to its repertoire of insulins plus GLP-1 and SGLT2 meds Trulicity and Jardiance, respectively. And while the company expects a diabetes indication first, it’s also eyeing a potential use in obesity to challenge Wegovy.



Data for its obesity drive will be out in April. At the recent J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, Lilly CEO Dave Ricks said the company was mulling the idea of splitting the branding of tirzepatide into diabetes and obesity, as Novo had done, and marketing the pair separately.