While Novo's GLP-1 meds post big gains, the company is still looking to create an insulin 'revolution,' CEO says

Novo Nordisk made an impressive splash in the first half of 2021, thanks in large part to its diabetes stars Ozempic and Rybelsus and its new obesity offering Wegovy. But even as its GLP-1 franchise does gangbusters, the company isn't letting its traditional diabetes offerings languish. 

While much of the recent focus on Novo Nordisk’s diabetes business has revolved around its GLP-1 drugs Ozempic and Rybelsus, the company is taking steps to keep its insulins relevant, too. The company’s phase 3 basal insulin analogue icodec, for example, could bring a "revolution" to the field by offering patients a once-weekly option, Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, CEO and president at Novo Nordisk, said in an interview.

“[T]he world has never seen a weekly insulin,” Jørgensen pointed out.

While insulin isn't a new field for pharma companies, competition is only heating up. The pricey market got a new entrant last week with the approval of Biocon and Viatris’ Semglee, the first interchangeable biosimilar insulin, which references Sanofi’s blockbuster diabetes med Lantus. With the interchangeability tag, pharmacists can substitute the biosimilar for Sanofi's branded insulin at the counter without a prescription.

Some market watchers have hailed the approval as a game-changer on the path toward making insulin more affordable, but it remains to be seen just how big of a splash Semglee actually makes. From his perspective, Jørgensen said the insulin field is “largely characterized as an interchangeable market."

Buyers have been substituting fast-acting insulin brands “for years,” Jørgensen said. The big question is whether Semglee’s FDA-approved interchangeability designation would generate savings for patients, the CEO said.

RELATED: In collab with Novo Nordisk, Walmart says it will 'revolutionize' insulin access with deep discounts

Aside from Novo's weekly insulin push, the company is also hoping to get the first data on its glucose-sensitive insulin later this year. Insulins naturally lower patients' glucose levels, Jørgensen said, which is "potentially dangerous." A glucose-sensitive insulin "will help people living with diabetes tremendously, and it will make it much easier to use insulins," he added.

Further, the company made its own insulin market play back in June, when it partnered with Walmart to help the retail juggernaut launch its first-ever private label insulin analog. Under the deal, Walmart will sell ReliOn NovoLog, manufactured by Novo Nordisk, in both vials and FlexPens at a deep discount. Walmart plans to sell the vials for $72.88 and the FlexPens for $85.88, representing savings between 58% and 75% on the cash price of branded insulin analogs. 

Wegovy launch goals

Insulins are only a part of Novo's business these days. The company's GLP-1 drugs Ozempic and Rybelsus have been on a tear, growing a respective 58% and 213% year-over-year at constant exchange rates in the first six months of 2021 to DKK 14.09 billion ($2.23 billion) and DKK 1.67 billion (about $265 million). In that category, Novo is in the process of launching its high-profile weight-loss drug Wegovy.

After its June approval, the drug garnered more than 8,000 prescriptions in the five weeks after launch, Novo Nordisk said during its earnings presentation. In fact, early demand outstripped supply, Jefferies analysts wrote to clients earlier this week.

While Novo is currently working through access talks with payers, the company has seen much more “receptivity” to Wegovy than it did for prior obesity launch Saxenda, and “on a much faster scale," Doug Langa, EVP of North American operations and president of Novo Nordisk, said in the interview.

Two large pharmacy benefits managers backed the drug “right out of the gate,” he said. That was unusual because the standard procedure for most PBMs is to block new products at launch, the exec added.

Earlier this year, Langa told Fierce Pharma that Wegovy would face several challenges in the obesity field. Those include stigma and bias around the disease, tough reimbursement talks, the amount of healthcare professionals prescribing drugs for the disease and finally, having patients seek treatment.

While it’s still early days, Langa said he thinks some of the long-held biases and stigmas around the disease are easing.

“I feel like the time is now for us to really start breaking through and unlocking this disease,” he added.

On the supply side for Wegovy, Novo Nordisk is “working around the clock to make sure that the patients have started on the product and get it, and that those who want it will also be able to get it," Langa said. There will be a “several week delay,” he said, but the company is “on top of it."

RELATED: Novo Nordisk, armed with Wegovy green light, preps aggressive push to build obesity market

Novo’s overall sales jumped 12% to 66.8 billion Danish kroner ($10.63 billion) for the first half of the year. With that performance, the company now predicts it will deliver 10% to 13% sales growth for the full year, up from the 6% to 10% it had previously forecasted.

As for whether COVID-19 and the Delta variant could disrupt those plans, the world is still “learning day by day" how the pandemic unfolds, Jørgensen said. He's “relatively optimistic” Novo can continue to conduct its business as needed.

“Where I think it becomes harder and harder is on some of the global supply chains,” the CEO said. The situation was more manageable last year when companies had stockpiles ready to go, but as supplies have been depleted, Jørgensen said he’s seen supply chains in the industry become increasingly challenged.