Novo Nordisk lands back in Sanders' crosshairs, this time over steep costs of Ozempic and Wegovy

Just a few months after laying into CEOs from Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck & Co., and Johnson & Johnson about the high costs of their drugs, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is taking Novo Nordisk to task for allegedly turning its blockbuster GLP-1s, Ozempic and Wegovy, into “luxury goods.”

On Wednesday, Sanders sent a letter from the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee to Novo CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen condemning the company for charging “unjustifiably high prices” for its semaglutide franchise in diabetes and obesity.

Semaglutide is the active ingredient in both Ozempic and Wegovy. Ozempic was first approved in 2017 in Type 2 diabetes and costs around $969 per month in the U.S., according to the committee’s letter. Wegovy—a slightly higher dose of semaglutide—won an FDA nod to treat obesity in 2021 and costs around $1,349 for a month’s supply, Sanders said.

In March, Wegovy snagged a second approval to cut the risk of cardiovascular death, heart attack and stroke in adult patients with cardiovascular disease who have obesity or are overweight.

“As important as these drugs are, they will not do any good for the millions of patients who cannot afford them,” Sanders wrote in this week’s letter announcing a formal investigation into Novo’s pricing strategies.

As part of the probe, the HELP committee is further asking Jørgensen to respond to a litany of questions around Ozempic and Wegovy revenues, patents, R&D expenses and more.

Naturally, Novo Nordisk sees the situation differently.

“It’s easy to oversimplify the science that goes into understanding disease and developing and producing new treatments, as well as the intricacies of U.S. and global healthcare systems,” a Novo Nordisk spokesperson said over email, noting that the public “doesn’t always take into account this extremely complex reality.”

At the same time, she explained that Novo agrees with Sanders that access to medications is paramount, whether dealing with Medicare, Medicaid or the commercial market.

“Novo Nordisk remains committed to working with policymakers to advance solutions to support access and affordability for all patients,” the spokesperson added.

In the letter from the HELP committee, Sanders warned that, beyond patient access, the steep costs of Ozempic and Wegovy could potentially “bankrupt Medicare, Medicaid, and our entire health care system.”

“The prices for these drugs are so high in the United States that everyone—regardless of whether they use the products or not—will likely be forced to bear the burden of Novo Nordisk’s profit maximizing strategy through higher insurance premiums and taxes,” Sanders said.

Ozempic and Wegovy are indeed much cheaper in other countries. Compared to Ozempic’s $969-per-month price tag in the U.S., the drug costs just $155 in Canada and $59 in Germany. As for Wegovy, the medication goes for $140 in Germany and just $92 in the United Kingdom, according to Sanders.

Meanwhile, prolific trade group the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) was quick to step in to defend Novo.

“Once again, Sen. Sanders is attacking an innovative company to advance a personal political agenda instead of addressing the real cause of patients' affordability challenges,” PhRMA’s SVP of public affairs, Alex Schriver, wrote in an emailed statement. “New treatments for Type 2 diabetes and obesity are the type of innovation patients want, our society needs and policymakers should encourage: medicines that improve health and help to avoid the most expensive parts of our health care system.”

Schriver went on to blame another common target in the drug pricing debate—insurance companies.

“The real question is why is Sen. Sanders giving a free pass to insurance companies and PBM middlemen to continue putting up access barriers at a time when they are making record profits,” he said.

Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs)—the middlemen who manage prescription drug benefits on behalf of health insurers—were a frequent talking point at the February HELP hearing during which Sanders grilled the CEOs from BMS, Merck and J&J. Pharma companies have argued that the rebates they provided to PBMs are not being passed on to lower out-of-pocket costs for patients.

This isn’t the first time Sanders has harangued Novo either. Last May, the Senator pressed a separate slate of CEOs at a HELP committee hearing that drew leaders from Novo, Eli Lilly and Sanofi, as well as executives from CVS Health, Express Scripts and OptumRx.

That particular hearing came shortly after Novo, Lilly and Sanofi collectively slashed the costs of many of their insulin products.