The company’s CEO told CNN that it could take years before Novo Nordisk meets demand for its popular weight-loss drug, noting that more than 100 million Americans suffer from obesity and “many of those want treatment.”
The Danish drugmaker has limited initial doses of Wegovy, which is approved in the US in 2021 for chronic weight management, as it struggles to meet demand, and CEO Lars Forrogaard Jorgensen said it’s not clear when that will stop.
“If I knew what the demand would be at the end of the day, I could tell you,” Jorgensen said in an interview. “But I have a feeling it may be several years before we can actually meet the demand that is out there. … We are just scratching the surface, so to speak.
Starting doses are lower doses of Wegovy that patients gradually increase over time, a process known as titration. This is done so that they can adjust to the medication and try to reduce side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and constipation.
Novo Nordisk initially said in May that it would limit the availability of those lower doses “in an effort to support continuity of care for existing patients.”
Jorgensen said the effort to “ease” some of the demand for Wegovy was aimed at ensuring a better patient experience for those already taking the drug, although “we could probably have sold more by letting it run”.
Jorgensen said Novo Nordisk is investing up to $4 billion annually in expanding its manufacturing capacity and operating all of its plants “24/7”.
Wegovy contains a higher dose of the same active ingredient, semaglutide, found in Novo Nordisk’s type 2 diabetes drug Ozempic, and has been shown in clinical trials to help people lose about 15% of their body weight, on average, along with diet. and exercise.
Studies this month have shown benefits for the heart, too, reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, or heart-related death in people with cardiovascular disease by 20%, and separately, improving symptoms in people with heart failure and obesity.
Wegovy is available in a few countries outside the US now, and Jorgensen said it wasn’t clear at first what the global demand would be. He said it turned out to be high.
In the first countries, the United States, Denmark and Norway, “all launches saw very high uptake,” Jorgensen said. “In Denmark, we have 1% of the population on Wegovy.”
It has just now started to become available in Germany and the UK as well.
Paying for medication can be another challenge, if patients are able to start treatment. Doctors told CNN the cost is $1,350 a month in the US before insurance, and coverage can be sporadic.
Studies of Wegovy and other similar medications in the class, known as GLP-1 receptor agonists, suggest that people should continue taking them to maintain weight loss. Jorgensen said treating obesity with medication is similar to treating chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes.
“You have to keep treating him, or the symptoms will come back,” he said. He said changing the “set point” in the body, where weight returns naturally without treatment, is not possible with medication now.
“We may be able to treat this over time, but all the evidence so far is that it’s a really chronic treatment,” Jorgensen said.
Doctors who prescribe the obesity drug told CNN they agree, although they noted that it may be possible for patients to use the drug less often over time. US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Calif asked in April whether patients were receiving the right “behavioral interventions” to try to maintain weight loss without medication.
As more and more people take the drugs for longer and longer periods, doctors and regulators are paying close attention to the potential safety risks.
CNN reported in July that three patients who took Ozempic or Wegovy developed stomach paralysis, which their doctors suggested might be related to the medications. In Europe, regulators are conducting an ongoing review of whether medications may be linked to suicidal thoughts.
The GLP-1 class of drugs has been on the market for 15 years and the company has plenty of data to make it feel the drugs are safe, Jorgensen said.
“When you get to very large numbers of patients and you have millions of patients using your medicine, you have different types of medical conditions among those patients,” Jorgensen said.
He said that when there are suggestions of causation, as in cases of gastroparesis, “Of course, we have to look into that, but so far there is nothing in what we can see that indicates any particular safety concerns.”