Novo's Rybelsus launch is on the up-and-up after taking pandemic hit: execs

Novo Nordisk CEO
Novo CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said that new launches have taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic because of a reduction in doctor visits. (Novo Nordisk)

Novo Nordisk entered 2020 with big expectations around its oral diabetes med Rybelsus, and while the pandemic has slowed the launch some, other meds have carried the day and propelled the company to revenue growth.

In general, newly launched products are the most affected by pandemic lockdowns because it “takes an interaction” between the doctor and patient to “make the decision to go on a new product,” Novo CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said in an interview. The company’s Rybelsus launch was hit by a reduction in new prescriptions, but execs said they’re confident with where the launch is heading. 

Around 33,000 doctors in the U.S. are now writing Rybelsus prescriptions, a number that’s back to pre-COVID levels, Camilla Sylvest, Novo’s executive vice president of commercial strategy and corporate affairs, said on Friday’s Q3 conference call with analysts. The company has negotiated around 85% access in the U.S. and is in “strike mode” with the launch, she added. 

Further, in September, Novo launched a DTC ad campaign for Rybelsus and saw an “immediate increase” in website visits, Sylvest said.

RELATED: Novo Nordisk, unscathed by COVID-19, enters 'strike mode' with diabetes launch Rybelsus

Rybelsus has generated $173 million during the first 9 months of the year, accounting for 16% of the company’s overall growth. Ozempic, the slightly older, injectable version of the drug, pulled in $2.36 billion, good for 129% of growth. The company’s goal to expand the GLP-1 class is “working as we had planned,” Sylvest said, with more than 80% of new prescriptions coming from those new to diabetes treatment or patients switching from drugs outside of the class. 

While Rybelsus slowed due to the pandemic, established GLP-1 drugs Victoza and Ozempic exhibited "continued strong trends," Jørgensen said. And insulins have “shown some resilience" because they're critical for patients to stay alive and well. Still, insulins and Victoza posted revenue declines versus the same period last year thanks to competitive dynamics in their respective fields.  

Another med that's seen a big negative effect from the pandemic? Obesity drug Saxenda, Jørgensen said. A reduction in doctor visits meant fewer new starts on the drug, but there could be a "pool of patients" who seek therapy moving forward as lockdowns ease and patients prioritize their health.

Overall, Novo posted a 7% revenue increase during the first nine months to $14.88 billion.

RELATED: Novo's next-gen GLP-1 Ozempic smashes blockbuster barrier amid ramp-up for Rybelsus rollout

Looking forward, as the pandemic enters a new phase this winter, Novo’s CFO Karsten Munk Knudsen acknowledged there’s “uncertainty” around how COVID-19 will affect the company in the coming months. The company is encouraged as it continues monitoring prescription trends, he added.