Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy bonanza looms large in Denmark
By Maggie Fick
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – The whirlwind success of weight-loss treatment Wegovy is providing a bonanza not just for its developer, Novo Nordisk, but also for its home country of Denmark.
Interviews with Danish economists, analysts, and executives at the Novo Nordisk Foundation which controls Novo highlight the benefits to the economy from jobs to private wealth – but also the potential pitfalls of relying on a single, outsized company.
“Danes are exposed to the success of Novo Nordisk, but also the risk – both because it is the most widely held stock in Denmark, and because of the company’s impact on our society,” Danske Bank investment strategist Lars Skovgaard Andersen said.
In August, the government cited Novo when it lifted its economic growth forecast for this year, to 1.2% from 0.6%. The drugmaker last month overtook LVMH as Europe’s most valuable listed company, worth about 385 billion euros ($403 billion) – slightly more than Denmark’s gross domestic product.
“We have struck gold,” said Lars Christensen, research associate at Copenhagen Business School.
Novo’s success would bring broad benefits, he added, citing Danish pension savers whose schemes are typically big holders of Novo shares. The share price has nearly tripled since Wegovy was launched in June 2021.
Record profits for Novo are projected to generate returns for the Foundation of more than $12 billion in coming years. They will also boost tax revenues and employment.
Novo Nordisk added 3,500 jobs in Denmark in 2022, bringing the total in the country to 21,000 employees, out of 59,000 worldwide, a company spokesperson said.
Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, the Foundation’s chief executive officer, said international press coverage of Wegovy was also enhancing Denmark’s image as a place that fosters scientific innovation.
Before Wegovy, “we used to be kind of, ‘Isn’t Denmark the place where Stockholm is the capital?'” he joked to journalists in Copenhagen on Tuesday.
Speaking later to Reuters, he acknowledged that Novo’s influence is growing as its profits soar.
“The Novo Group is of course becoming of bigger importance to Danish society,” Thomsen said. “To me, it’s the opportunity – literally I can liaise with the ministers of science, health, commerce, energy and climate …”
“We team up with the political system and the ministers, to make sure we are kind of aligned” on issues such as climate and sustainability in agriculture, he said.
Danish government officials did not respond to a request for comment.
WINDFALL FOR FOUNDATION
Under a legal structure common in Denmark, the Foundation’s wealth is managed by its investment arm, Novo Holdings, which owns a controlling stake – 28.1% of economic (or A) shares and 76.9% of voting (or B) shares – in Novo Nordisk.
Other big Danish companies – beer manufacturer Carlsberg, shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk and toymaker Lego – are similarly “enterprise foundations,” although the structure is little used elsewhere.
Wegovy is the first-to-market of a new class of highly effective weight-loss treatments that some analysts predict could be worth $100 billion within a decade.
That has positioned the Foundation for a Wegovy windfall that Thomsen said could exceed estimates of $12.5 billion between 2022 and 2026.
Ranking alongside the U.S.-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Wellcome Trust, the Foundation reported assets worth 108 billion euros ($113 billion) at end-2022, mostly representing its stakes in Novo Nordisk and Danish enzymes maker Novozymes.
Because it has no plans to sell those stakes, the Foundation cautions against a direct comparison of its assets to other leading global charities.
Novo Holdings also earns money from 161 portfolio companies and capital investments, mainly in life sciences in Europe and North America and increasingly Asia.
Last year, the Foundation distributed grants worth about 1 billion euros, mostly in Denmark, focusing on life sciences, including research into obesity prevention and infectious diseases, humanitarian aid, and education and arts research.
Disbursements will rise this year, said Thomsen, who before moving to the Foundation supervised the development of Wegovy and Ozempic, a similar drug for diabetes, as Novo Nordisk’s chief scientific officer.
He submitted Novo’s application for U.S. approval for Wegovy in late 2020.
That could mean it’s time for the Foundation, which has “almost outgrown Denmark” to award more grants outside the country, said Rasmus Kristian Feldthusen, professor of commercial law at the University of Copenhagen.
More money will likely go abroad, Thomsen told Reuters.
He said he first considered joining the Foundation more than a decade ago, but didn’t move there until the final stages of Wegovy’s development, on a hunch the obesity drug would help expand its philanthropic reach.
Thomsen acknowledged concerns that the Danish economy could become too dependent on Novo and its Wegovy riches, as Finland did with Nokia before Apple’s smartphones stole its market, but downplayed them.
Noting that Novo’s patent on semaglutide – the active ingredient used in Wegovy and Ozempic – is in place for nearly another decade, and that the company is investing in future growth, he said: “There’s no ‘Nokia moment’ (for Novo) in the next few years.”
($1 = 0.9531 euros)
($1 = 7.1012 Danish crowns)
(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; Writing by Alexander Smith; Editing by Josephine Mason, Michele Gershberg and Catherine Evans)
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