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Wegovy and Zepbound – where are the opportunities for investors in new weight-loss drugs in 2024?

Drug makers are scrambling to bring new and better weight-loss drugs to market in 2024. We look at what these new drugs could mean for investors.
Image of weight loss drug syringe and tape measure.jpg

Important information - This article isn’t personal advice. If you’re not sure whether an investment is right for you please seek advice. If you choose to invest the value of your investment will rise and fall, so you could get back less than you put in.

Obesity is a major factor in many serious illnesses, which can have grave implications for healthcare systems and the wider economy.

Currently, well over a third of the world’s population is overweight or obese. Projections suggest that number could rise to more than 50% by 2035. It’s predicted this will cost the global economy over $4tn every year – the equivalent impact of the pandemic.

But where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity.

The latest generation of pharmaceutical products for weight loss can make a significant difference to both the waistline and associated health risks. Demand for these products is booming, as is investor interest for the two market leaders in the space – Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, and US-based Eli Lilly.

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Comparing the weight-loss drugs front runners

The weight-loss solutions owe their development to research for diabetes, where synthetic hormones (like the renowned GLP-1) can encourage insulin production and reduce appetite.

Novo Nordisk was the first company to receive approval for a once-weekly weight management injection in this class.

Diabetes and Obesity care dominate Novo’s revenue profile, and drove underlying revenue growth of 36% last year to around DKK 232bn (about £26bn). Sales of obesity care products grew much faster at 154%, and made up around 18% of total revenue.

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Eli Lilly’s obesity drug was only approved for weight loss in the United States late last year under the brand name Zepbound. There’s some evidence to suggest it can be more effective at shedding the pounds than Novo’s Wegovy, but there are also additional safety concerns.

Diabetes care made up more than half of Lilly’s full year revenues, but it still has a more diverse business mix than Novo Nordisk. Its experimental drug Donanemab could be approved later this year to treat Alzheimer's disease in the United States too. This therapy has multi-billion dollar revenue potential. But there can be no guarantees.

Zepbound hasn’t been approved for long, so its sales are a long way behind Wegovy. But both company’s total revenues are forecasted to grow between 20-30% per year in 2024 and 2025.

In terms of operating profit, consensus forecasts suggest much faster growth for Lilly. Novo has much healthier profit margins and there’s an opportunity for Lilly to close that gap, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

Shares in both companies trade at a significant premium to the pharmaceutical sector.

Its worth noting, out of the two, Novo Nordisk has a more dominant position, and slightly less demanding valuation.

While we’re excited about the prospects for both companies, we expect some ups and downs ahead.

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What’s next for weight-loss drugs in 2024?

Weight-loss drugs have the potential to be the most valuable class of medicine in history.

The key to achieving this will be growing the market that clinicians can write prescriptions for. Both companies are driving towards this.

Novo’s seen Wegovy approved as the first weight-loss drug to treat cardiovascular disease. Another area it’s aiming for approval is chronic kidney disease.

Lilly’s Zepbound has shown promising results in reducing the symptoms of the sleep disorder obstructive sleep apnoea. Further approvals for this and other illnesses are something to watch.

But for now, supply rather than demand is the issue, with both companies investing heavily to increase capacity. The high price of these products makes them incredibly profitable. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in political circles, so expect some downward pressure in the future.

Given the relatively short history of GLP-1s, another risk to bear in mind is the potential emergence of long-term side effects.

High prices will always attract competitors too. Copycats are already waiting in the wings, particularly in China. However, in developed markets the big players still have several years of exclusivity.

Given the pace of development, standing still is never a good idea in the pharmaceutical industry. Both Lilly and Novo have significant pipelines with several trials evaluating new and existing obesity therapies.

Demonstrating further clinical benefits, a viable oral administration route, or improved side effect profiles are all routes to establishing a commercial edge.

But they’re not the only players in the race, with over 100 substances in clinical trials.

Obesity drugs in clinical trials

Source: IQVIA – when the dust settles; The future shape of the obesity market 13/05/24.

Bringing new medicines to market is a lengthy and expensive progress, with most medicines never reaching the market. For now Novo and Lilly’s first mover advantage is holding them in good stead.

But, the market is enormous and there’s ample room for more players.

Drugs that demonstrate a range of clinical benefits are likely to stand out from the crowd over those that merely show smaller improvements over the current standard of care.

We prefer financially secure companies, as they can normally stomach the risks of drug development and aren’t betting their shirt on a small number of clinical trials.

One example is AstraZeneca.

Clinical progress on its obesity pipeline is certainly something to watch out for, but it’s not the be all and end all. It already has a world-class offering in cancer treatments and rare diseases, aiming to more than double revenue to $80bn by 2030, helped by the expected launch of 20 new medicines.

Compared to Lilly and Novo, the valuation is less demanding, reflecting lower growth projections. But a robust pipeline also carries significant execution risk which investors need to be prepared to accept.

This article is original Hargreaves Lansdown content, published by Hargreaves Lansdown. It was correct as at the date of publication, and our views may have changed since then. Investments rise and fall in value so investors could make a loss.

This article is not advice or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any investment. No view is given on the present or future value or price of any investment, and investors should form their own view on any proposed investment. This article has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and is considered a marketing communication. Non-independent research is not subject to FCA rules prohibiting dealing ahead of research, however HL has put controls in place (including dealing restrictions, physical and information barriers) to manage potential conflicts of interest presented by such dealing. Please see our full non-independent research disclosure for more information.

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Written by
Derren Nathan
Derren Nathan
Head of Equity Research

Derren leads our Equity Research team with more than 15 years of experience in his field. Thriving in a passionate environment, Derren finds motivation in intellectual challenges and exploring diverse ideas within his writing.

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Article history
Published: 20th June 2024