Wegovy, the ‘Viagra’ of weight loss drugs flying off the shelves

Wegovy, the ‘Viagra’ of weight loss drugs flying off the shelves

  • By Adrienne Murray
  • Business reporter, Copenhagen

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Casper Nielsen says he’s shed 60kg (nine stone) in two years

At his home in Denmark, Casper Nielsen takes a package from the fridge and prepares to inject his next dose.

“So this is Wegovy, you take it four times a month,” says the 45-year-old. “I used to think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it to 60, maybe I’m not going to see my grandchildren.’

“But now I am looking at the future better. [Two years ago] I started with 159 kg [25 stone]… Right now, I weigh 93.5 kg, so I’m in a really good place.”

Driven by a buzz of social media and famous users including Elon MuskWegovy is a weight loss drug that has come off the shelves of pharmacies.

Such has been the rise in its global sales that its maker, Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk, last year became Europe’s most valuable listed company.

“I think the only drug it can compare to is Viagra,” says Kurt Jacobsen, a professor of business history at Copenhagen Business School, referring to Wegovy’s popularity.

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Wegovy’s maker, Novo Nordisk, can’t make the drug fast enough

Aimed at severely overweight people, Wegovy’s active ingredient is a drug called semaglutide, which helps control blood sugar, reduces appetite and makes patients feel fuller. It is also the active ingredient in its sister drug Ozempic, which is used to treat type 2 diabetes.

Research suggests that Wegovy patients can lose more than 10% of their body weight.

These issues haven’t slowed Wegovy’s sales, which grew fivefold in 2023. It’s currently available in eight countries – Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, the UAE, the US and the UK – with Japan to follow to follow at the end of February.

In the UK it is now prescribed by some specialist NHS services for weight loss management, for patients who meet specific criteria. It is also offered by some private clinics.

Meanwhile, Ozempic is now the best-selling diabetes drug in the world.

Strong sales of both drugs have led to increased profits at Novo Nordisk. At the end of January, it announced that its annual net profit had risen 51% to 83 billion Danish kroner ($12 billion; £9.6 billion).

Speaking to the BBC, the firm’s chief financial officer, Karsten Munk Knudsen, admits that Ozempic and Wegovy’s huge popularity initially caught the firm by surprise.

“The demand in the market, both for diabetes and obesity, has just grown, much more than we ever anticipated. Much more than anyone anticipated,” he says.

He expects these strong sales to continue into 2024, “we are guiding for 18 to 26% growth.

Whether Novo Nordisk can continue with orders for Wegovy remains to be seen, says Emily Field, a pharmaceuticals analyst at Barclays bank. “The underlying demand is so overwhelming, they can’t do enough of it,” she says.

Mr Knudsen admits the company won’t be able to meet demand “any time soon”, but adds it is investing heavily to expand production capacity. “We’re really building new facilities like never before.”

For Denmark, a small country of less than six million people, Novo Nordisk is now so big that it is having a major impact on the Danish economy.

Denmark’s economic growth was 1.1% during the first nine months of 2023. But strip out the pharmaceutical sector, dominated by Novo, and the economy shrank by 0.8%. The country is now publishing separate economic statistics, minus the drug industry.

image source, Casper Neilsen

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Casper Nielsen credits Wegovy for this significant weight loss

For almost a century, Novo Nordisk had focused on the production of insulin. However, the company was transformed with its discovery of semaglutide in 2004. A few years later the drug was developed as a treatment for diabetes and the weight loss effect came as a surprise.

Ozempic was approved for sale in the US in 2017, and in 2018 in the EU. Wegovy followed in the US in 2021 and in the EU in 2022.

Dr Maria Kruger, a general practitioner and spokeswoman for the Danish Association for General Medicine, says the number of patients now seeking Wegovy has surprised doctors and she thinks stronger guidelines are needed on who should take it.

“Social media is really affecting people,” she adds. “I think it’s the idea that we have that the perfect body has to be slim and thin.”

Conversely, she says some people in Denmark who could benefit from taking Wegovy find it too expensive, as users in the country have to pay the full market price for the drug.

“Patients who are really struggling with weight and maybe can’t work, and have physical disabilities, a lot of them can’t afford this drug,” says Dr Kruger. “I think it’s a health disparity.”

Meanwhile, some medical insurance providers in Denmark and the US are refusing to cover Wegovy due to concerns about its high price, along with increasing patient numbers and uncertainty about the length of treatment.

However, with worldwide obesity levels nearly tripling over the past 50 years and expected to hit one billion people by 2030, Wegovy’s success has set off an arms race with weight-loss drugs.

In November, US pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly was granted permission in the US to sell its rival Zepbound. Its sister drug aimed at treating diabetes, Mounjaro, was already on the market.

“Novo and Lilly are off to such a great start,” says Barclay’s Ms Field. “Everybody is scrambling to catch up.”

Novo Nordisk’s Mr. Knudsen dismissed the growing competition: “The market potential is so large that there is more than enough room for two or even more competitors.”

Back at Casper Nielsen’s home in Zealand, he says continuing to take Wegovy is keeping the weight off.

“Before I had tried all different types of diets a million times… and it was always the same, same story, I lost a lot of weight. And once I stopped dieting just a little bit, I gained weight in no time, even a little more.

“But now I’m thinking, ‘okay, I’m actually going to have my grandkids and play with them.’ I’m going to do all the things a grandpa should do.”

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