Novo Nordisk expands job cuts to 1,300 as executives play down Lilly’s GLP-1 threat

Diabetes giant Novo Nordisk has been slimming down this year, and now we know just how much. First it was 400 R&D jobs, then about 250 positions in the U.S., and now the company says it will have cut about 1,300 employees by the end of 2018.

“We do it to really strengthen our strategic execution, so by being sharp on how we allocate resources, we believe we can grow our strategic brands, our innovative products even stronger in the future, and we can set up our R&D function to be even stronger going forward,” CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said in an appearance on CNBC.

Jørgensen stressed that the majority of the reductions have already gone through. And meanwhile, severance costs in the third quarter took a toll on the company’s profit. Its net for Q3 dropped 8% to 9.04 billion Danish krone ($1.38 billion), below analyst consensus.

Luckily for Novo, sales growth in the first nine months stayed positive at 4% in local currencies, to DKK 82.1 billion, mainly thanks to its GLP-1 franchise, the stalwart Victoza and brand-new longer-acting med Ozempic.

For the first three quarters, Victoza sales jumped 12% in local currencies, to DKK 17.8 billion, while sales of Ozempic, launched in the U.S. in February, came in at DKK 804 million.

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As of October, Novo’s GLP-1 franchise still held a slight advantage over rival Eli Lilly in terms of U.S. new-to-brand prescription share. Victoza and Ozempic together accounted for 45.1%, while Lilly’s Trulicity has built up to 40.2%, according to Iqvia data cited by Jørgensen on the company’s third-quarter earnings call.

However, analysts piled onto Lilly’s potential threat to the Novo drugs, particularly with recent positive data from its investigational drug that boosts receptors for both GIP and GLP-1. In a phase 2b trial, the GIP/GLP-1 RA showed average blood sugar improvement as measured by HbA1c of up to 2.4 percentage points and achieved an average weight reduction up to 12.7% both for the highest dose, though side effects raised some eyebrows.

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Just as Lilly’s diabetes head Enrique Conterno told investors early this year that Trulicity wasn't afraid of the Ozempic launch, Novo’s executives Thursday played down the potential threat from the U.S. pharma’s follow-up therapy, at least for the near- to mid-term.

“There’s still some time to go before [Lilly] can enter the market, and in that period, we have ample time to establish Ozempic as a new gold standard, and we have the opportunity to hopefully launch oral semaglutide,” Jørgensen said during the call.

Novo’s R&D chief Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen also pointed to the emergence of high-dose, 2.4 mg Ozempic currently under testing in a phase 3 trial designed to evaluate the drug’s weight loss effect in patients with or without diabetes. That dose update, expected in the near future, “would enable Ozempic to remain unbeaten,” even in the face of Lilly’s dual agonists, said Thomsen.

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Novo has continuously rolled out positive data for its oral semaglutide pill in the hopes of a launch that could solidify its lead in the growing GLP-1 market. In the eight trials that have read out so far, oral semaglutide has demonstrated a consistent reduction in HbA1c and body weight.

Meanwhile, insulin sales, particularly in the U.S., have unsurprisingly declined again. Long-acting insulin Tresiba remained the bright spot, whose DKK 5.86 billion sales in the first nine months represented a 15% increase in local currencies.