After a phase of slower growth, Novo Nordisk sees the fruits of its Wegovy and Rybelsus launches, CEO says

Novo Nordisk CEO
Novo CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said he expects the company's new diabetes medicine Rybelsus to grow for "many, many years." (Novo Nordisk)

As Novo Nordisk worked to advance its suite of next-gen medicines back in 2016 and 2017, the company was in a phase of "relatively low growth," CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen acknowledges. Now, thanks to new launches, things have changed.

After the 2020 and 2021 rollouts for diabetes tablet Rybelsus and obesity medicine Wegovy, respectively, Novo appears firmly on a growth path. For the first nine months of the year, the company posted a 12% revenue increase at constant currencies to 102.5 billion Danish krone ($15.96 billion). Late last week, Novo said it expects 12% to 15% jumps in sales and operating profits for 2021.

The performance has been “to a large degree driven by a strong launch of Wegovy in the U.S.,” Jørgensen said in an interview. Importantly, as Wegovy's launch gained steam, it hasn't cannibalized Novo's older obesity medicine Saxenda, the CEO added.

Together, Novo's two obesity care meds generated 5.94 billion Danish krone ($924 million) in the first nine months of the year, a 41% increase year-over-year.

After its launch in June 2021, Wegovy reached the 10,000 prescription-per-week mark in five weeks, Novo's EVP of North America Operations, Doug Langa, added during the interview. That same achievement took Saxenda 5 years.

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Quickly after Wegovy's debut, demand was so high that Novo's supply chain wasn’t ready to handle the orders. Pharma companies typically add capacity as a launch progresses, Jørgensen explained. In the case of Wegovy, that strategy meant Novo has had to play catch up. The drugmaker expects to be able to meet demand by the start of next year.

Novo isn't counting only on the U.S. market for Wegovy growth. The company is hoping for European approval by around the turn of the year, and it has submitted its medicine in Japan.

While Novo plans to follow the standard international launch process of negotiating for access country-by-country, Jørgensen said the company aims to create an “out-of-pocket" market for the medicine for patients who’d be willing to pay for the drug themselves in places where there isn’t a national reimbursement program.

Meanwhile, the 2020 launch of oral GLP-1 Rybelsus is the company's "second biggest growth driver," Langa said, despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic hit only months into the rollout. While the medicine turned in a 209% growth at constant exchange rates in the first nine months, reaching 3 billion Danish krone ($469 million), Langa said he thinks "we can and should do better.”

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Aside from the challenges of getting the word out about the new drug during the pandemic, Jørgensen said doctors were generally "hesitant about changing prescriptions" for stable patients. The company has a "very long" perspective on the medicine and thinks Rybelsus' growth "is set to continue for many, many years," the CEO added.

While Novo will continue its Wegovy and Rybelsus launch efforts next year, Jørgensen said the company is separately expecting a hit from China's volume-based procurement program. Officials there are eying insulins for price cuts, which will have a "significant impact" on the company's China business and bring a "one-time step down" for the outfit, the CEO said. Afterward, Novo still thinks it has the tools to grow in the key market, Jørgensen said.

In all, Novo has emerged from a phase of "relatively low growth" over 2016 and 2017 timeframe, the CEO said. After working to advance its new medicines, it's “really nice to see when our innovation is well received in the market," he said.