The pharmaceutical managers of companies such as Amgen and Pfizer are planning to penetrate the lucrative obesity market by developing or cutting deals to acquire better drugs competing with Wegovy and Zepbound from Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk.
This market is estimated to reach at least $100 billion by the end of the decade as consumers are switching to the new treatments that have been proven to reduce weight by up to 20%. Drug manufacturers are also testing these medications for other health benefits, such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases and obstructive sleep apnea.
Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk’s shares have risen by around 75% and 60% respectively in the last year, significantly outperforming the pharmaceutical sector overall. The NYSE Arca Pharmaceutical Index, which includes both companies, has only risen by 10% in the same period.
Amgen has an experimental obesity drug with a dual mechanism of action in mid-stage studies and hopes that it will have fewer side effects with less frequent dosing compared to Wegovy or Zepbound, said Jay Bradner, Chief Scientific Officer, during the annual JPMorgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco this week.
Wegovy and Zepbound belong to a class of drugs called GLP-1 agonists, developed for type 2 diabetes, which reduce food cravings and slow down stomach emptying.
Bradner said that if this differentiation is proven against the market leaders, Amgen will establish itself in the obesity market despite Novo and Lilly’s lead.
„It’s really not too late to enter the obesity market. There continues to be a massive unmet need, and the public health need is not fully covered by the already approved medications,” he said. Nearly 115 million adults and children in the US are obese.
German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim is collaborating with Danish biotech company Zealand Pharma to develop a treatment for obesity targeting GLP-1 and another hormone called glucagon.
„I think we could be the first to bring a GLP-1/glucagon receptor agonist to the market,“ said Clive Wood, head of research at Boehringer. The medication also increases energy expenditure by targeting glucagon.
„While suppressing appetite, you burn more calories,“ said Wood. Merck and the small biotech company Altimmune have similar drugs in development.
Bayer’s pharmaceutical chief Stefan Oelrich said in an interview at the conference that the company is hesitant to venture into the obesity market independently but may consider partnering with companies with the right expertise.
Pfizer will focus on drugs already in its pipeline and seek licensing agreements or acquire less expensive obesity compounds in the early stages, said CEO Albert Bourla to JPMorgan reporters.
„Pfizer’s position is that we believe obesity is an area we can play and win, so we need to play,“ he said.
$150 BILLION MARKET?
Bourla also said that some estimates for the ultimate size of the obesity market have grown to $150 billion per year, representing a 50% increase from the most optimistic forecasts of industry managers and analysts less than a year ago.
In 2023, the US demand surpassed the supply for the weight-loss medications from Novo and Lilly. David Ricks, CEO of Lilly, said that the supply of Zepbound may also not be enough to meet demand this year. Novo Nordisk stated in August that supply constraints for Wegovy are likely to persist until 2024.
While the market will be large enough to support multiple players, Marshall Gordon, an analyst at ClearBridge Investments, said that entering now would be a challenge since Lilly and Novo have additional new obesity drugs in late-stage testing on top of their blockbuster medications.
According to LSEG data, ClearBridge holds stakes in both companies.
„It’s going to take more than just a ‚me too‘ here. Someone needs to have a different insight than Lilly and Novo didn’t get first,“ he said.
(Reporting by Patrick Wingrove and Michael Erman; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)