Novo Nordisk puts 500 Saxenda reps on U.S. streets, aiming for $1B in weight-loss sales

Novo Nordisk ($NVO) has set its Saxenda target and enlisted its U.S. sales force. Now it just needs to follow through--and that won't be an easy task.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

In an interview with the Financial Times, Novo Chief Science Officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen said his company is looking for at least $1 billion in annual sales from the newly approved weight-loss med, a reformulated version of its blockbuster diabetes remedy Victoza (liraglutide).

And Novo plans to put 500 U.S. reps on that job, or about one-sixth of its sales force in the country. The Danish drugmaker has said that its longstanding relationships with doctors who treat diabetes patients--who are often overweight--should help it make inroads with Saxenda.

They'll be pushing data showing that 92% of clinical trial patients lost weight by adding Saxenda to diet and exercise, compared with 62% of placebo patients. Saxenda patients also lost more weight--9.2% of their body weight, compared with 3.5% of patients in the placebo arm.

Plus, physicians are already familiar with Victoza, and though Saxenda is a higher dose of liraglutide, that familiarity could help Novo persuade doctors to try it.

That's no certain thing, however. Several new obesity drugs have hit the market over the past couple of years, including Arena Pharmaceuticals' ($ARNA) Belviq and Vivus' ($VVUS) Qsymia. Stymied by reluctant payers and skeptical doctors, the earlier entries haven't gained much traction, at least not yet. Eisai, Arena's marketing partner on Belviq, has beefed up its sales force and mounted a new direct-to-consumer ad campaign, hoping to change that.

Like these competitors, Novo will have to get payers on its side to remove any cost-related barriers to patients signing onto its med. And it will have to persuade doctors to put aside preconceived notions about weight loss meds.

But as a fourth-to-market med, Saxenda will benefit from the market-making work done by its older rivals. Takeda, which is marketing Orexigen's ($OREX) Contrave, will also be pounding the obesity-drugs drum. In fact, Contrave may prove to be the one to beat, RBC Capital Markets says; Takeda is putting 900 reps on the streets to promote the drug, compared with Novo's 500 and Eisai's current force of 450. Vivus brings up the rear with 150.

Bernstein analyst Ronny Gal pegs Saxenda sales at $700 million by 2020, while Wells Fargo's Matthew Arnold sees $634 million by then for Contrave. For Novo, "the next challenge is adoption, given clinical profile and cost," Gal wrote in a note to investors earlier this month. Novo hasn't yet announced its Saxenda price for the U.S. market.

- read the FT story

Special Report: Obesity drugs: Where are we now?