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Novo, Lilly buoyed by fast-growing GLP-1 drug sales

Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly on Thursday reported strong sales growth for their rival GLP-1 metabolic disease drugs, setting up a 2024 showdown as the latter company’s latest product Mounjaro nears approval as a weight-loss rival to Novo’s Wegovy.

Both companies cautioned about potential supply constraints, however. Wegovy still has limited availability at the starter dose, and Lilly CEO David Ricks said there is a need to increase manufacturing capacity “pretty dramatically from the current levels.”

Wegovy sales jumped nearly five-fold to 21.7 billion Danish krone, or about $3.1 billion, through the first nine months of this year, according to Novo. Sales of Ozempic, which is approved as a diabetes drug but used off-label in weight loss, were 65.7 billion krone, a 58% rise.

The performance of those products has been strong enough that Novo has raised its guidance for the year three times. The company now expects total sales growth between 32% and 38% for the year, with operating profit growth of between 40% and 46%.

Lilly on Thursday revealed equally promising sales numbers for Mounjaro, which is so far approved only as a blood sugar-lowering agent for people with Type 2 diabetes. Sales of the dual-acting drug were $3 billion for the first nine months of 2023, which will be its first full year on the market. It is now Lilly’s second-biggest seller after another GLP-1 drug called Trulicity, sales of which have declined as Mounjaro’s have grown.

A Food and Drug Administration decision on approving Mounjaro, known also as tirzepatide, in obesity should come by the end of 2023, allowing it to take on Wegovy and off-label Ozempic as a weight-loss drug.

That rivalry could be intensified by recent, positive clinical trial results that found Wegovy helped prevent heart attacks and strokes in overweight patients. The Danish drugmaker has asked the FDA to include heart protection in its drug’s label, and further data from that trial evaluating Wegovy as a preventive cardiovascular medicine are expected to be released at the American Heart Association meeting on Nov. 11.

Novo has also boosted its case for Ozempic in diabetes with data indicating it protects kidney health. That is in response to data suggesting Mounjaro is more effective at lowering blood sugar in diabetes and shedding pounds.

Supply remains a challenge for both companies as strong uptake continues. Manufacturing issues have slowed Wegovy’s launch, and the lower doses used to start patients remain restricted to ensure that people who have reached maintenance doses continue to have access.

Yet Novo executives argue these hurdles are not slowing their drug’s potential. With the raised guidance throughout the year, “it feels like we have released the handbrake and are moving at very high pace in terms of growth rates,” said CFO Karsten Munk Knudsen in a call with analysts.

On a Thursday call with analysts that accompanied Lilly’s third-quarter results announcement, CEO Ricks acknowledged “we’re not at all happy with the capacity we’ve announced already. You’ll see more.”

“This is really all hands on deck,” he said.

Shares in both Novo and Lilly rose in Thursday morning trading.