By Stine Jacobsen
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk <NOVOb.CO> is aiming for a big slice of the multibillion-dollar diabetes market with a new pill, approved by U.S. authorities on Friday, that caters for patients with an aversion to needles.
The company built its position as the world's biggest insulin maker on the back of injectable drugs, but now aims to transform the market with a first-of-its-kind tablet version of its semaglutide drug.
While more than 70% of diabetes prescriptions in the United States are already for oral treatments, none of these are from the GLP-1 class that Novo specializes in, and which are viewed as highly effective medicines that stimulate insulin production.
"We have only worked with around 25% of the patients so far and we see it as a breakthrough because we can now also address the tablet-based market," chief scientific officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen told Reuters on Monday.
Investors have been concerned the once-daily pill, known as Rybelsus, would be sold more cheaply than comparable injectable treatments as Novo tries to secure a foothold in the tablet market, where drugs tend to be cheaper.
However, chief financial officer Karsten Munk Knudsen told analysts the monthly price would be similar to the company's once-weekly injectable version of semaglutide, Ozempic, which has a list price of nearly $800 per month.
"Overall this removes a concern that the company would have been forced much lower on price," said Bernstein analyst Wimal Kapadia, who has an 'outperform' rating on Novo shares.
Competitors include Eli Lilly's <LLY.N> injectable Trulicity and Merck's <MRK.N> Januvia, an oral medication known chemically as sitagliptin. A study last year showed Novo's tablet was superior to Januvia in demonstrating reductions in both long-term blood sugar level and weight.
"We have a very strong position if you look at the leading tablet treatments in the market," Thomsen said.
Novo hopes to convince doctors that Rybelsus, which brokerage Pareto estimates will have sales of at least 36.6 billion Danish crowns ($5.4 billion) in 2026, provides a new weapon to tackle diabetes earlier, and highly effectively.
Thomsen said the U.S. approval was a triumph of perseverance. "We were laughed at when we told our peers about it. They thought we had eaten or smoked something weird," he said of the early plans for the drug.
The name Rybelsus was picked because of its similarity to the word rebellious. "There is a revolt against why biological drugs should always be treated through injections," said Thomsen.
(Reporting by Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Mark Potter)