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Novo Nordisk shares hit a record high on Wednesday, as the Danish pharma group’s blockbuster weight-loss drugs powered a surge in sales and profits last year, cementing its position as Europe’s most valuable company.

The Danish group reported that sales climbed 36 per cent to $33.7bn in 2023 while profits rose to almost $15bn, both above analysts’ expectations. Shares rose by 4 per cent to an all-time high in morning trading before falling back, leaving the company hovering around a $500bn market capitalisation for the first time.

Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, Novo Nordisk’s chief executive, said he was “very pleased with the strong performance in 2023 reflecting that more than 40mn people are now benefiting from our innovative diabetes and obesity treatments”.

Growing demand for the group’s diabetes treatment Ozempic and weight-loss drug Wegovy has pushed it and US rival Eli Lilly to the forefront of a market some analysts estimate is worth as much as $140bn a year.

Eli Lilly, maker of Mounjaro and the recently approved Zepbound, and Novo Nordisk have so far dominated the sector. Their drugs, known as GLP-1s, suppress appetite and have enabled impressive weight loss results, with Wegovy helping users lose about 15 per cent of their body weight.

Investors are excited not merely by the drugs’ effectiveness in tackling obesity, but also by their potential in reducing the impact of cardiovascular, liver and other diseases. Novo Nordisk hopes that trial results published in November that found Wegovy cut the risk of death by 18 per cent will encourage health systems and insurers to pay for the treatment. 

It is investing in new production facilities to meet demand, but the company said on Wednesday that sales growth this year would ease to between 18 per cent and 26 per cent, as competition increased and constraints continued. Sales of Wegovy in the fourth quarter of 2023 were $1.4bn, 6 per cent below consensus estimates, due to supply bottlenecks.

“It’s to be expected for quite some time there will be demand that outgrows what can be produced by us and probably the competition, but we are expecting quite strong growth for 2024, on top of a larger and larger base,” Jørgensen said.

As more patients take up the drug, Karsten Munk Knudsen, chief financial officer of Novo Nordisk, said that prices for weight-loss drug Wegovy and diabetes treatment Ozempic would “gradually come down” to ease pressure on health insurance and care systems.

“With expansions comes pressures on budgets with payers,” he said. “As volume continues to expand, prices will gradually come down, but much more than offset by the volume expansion in the coming years.”

The list price of a four-dose package of Wegovy — enough for a month’s supply — comes in at $1,349. Insurers and distributors in the US often negotiate lower prices with manufacturers, but Wegovy’s list price remains higher than the $1,060 list price of Eli Lilly’s recently approved medication Zepbound.

To tackle increased competition, Novo Nordisk is also developing a pipeline of alternative anti-obesity medicines as it seeks to stay ahead of rivals in the weight-loss market. Roche and AstraZeneca have acquired or signed licensing deals with biotechs developing weight-loss treatments in the past year.

Jørgensen said he was “very pleased” with late stage trial results for a once-weekly insulin-based medicine for diabetics, while the company also said it had successfully completed an early trial for an oral obesity medicine watched by analysts.

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