By Maggie Fick
LONDON (Reuters) - Some Britons are set to be able to get Wegovy weight-loss injections after Novo Nordisk launched the drug in the UK on Monday, moving into its second major European market in just over a month despite struggling to meet soaring demand.
Danish drugmaker Novo said in a statement that the weekly injection would be available in the United Kingdom "through a controlled and limited launch".
Wegovy, shown to help patients reduce body weight by around 15% when used along with exercise and lifestyle changes, is so far available in the United States, Norway, Denmark, and as of late July, Germany.
However, Novo's inability to keep up with U.S. demand for Wegovy has effectively delayed the launch in most of Europe.
Nevertheless, surging demand for Wegovy, and Novo's highly effective diabetes drug Ozempic, have sent its shares and earnings to record highs. It unseated LVMH as Europe's most valuable listed company on Friday, ending the French luxury group's 2-1/2 year-long reign.
Novo's shares, which have risen by 41% this year, rose as much as 2.3% on Monday to a record high of 1,331 Danish crowns ($193). They were up 0.74% at 1507 GMT.
Reuters reported last week that Wegovy supplies were limited in Germany less than a month after its launch in Europe's largest drug market, highlighting the challenge in Europe.
"We are closely monitoring Wegovy demand and are working with regulators and providers to ensure people living with obesity can have access to and remain on treatment," Novo said.
The company and Britain's drug cost-effectiveness watchdog NICE declined to comment on how much it would cost.
But in an early indication of prices, leading online health and beauty retailers Boots and Superdrug said they would charge private patients from 195 pounds for a monthly supply of Wegovy.
UK-based online pharmacy chain Simple said it would charge between 199 pounds and 299 pounds ($251-$377).
All of the prices includes online consultation with a clinician, prescription and dispensing costs.
In the United States, the drug sells for as much as $1,350 a month.
In March, NICE recommended the use of Wegovy in adults with at least one weight-related condition and a body mass index of 35, but only within the National Health Service's (NHS) specialist weight management scheme.
NICE's recommendation also calls for Wegovy to be used "for a maximum of two years".
Novo said the drug will be available on the NHS' weight management scheme and "privately through a registered healthcare professional".
It was not immediately clear what the implications would be of Wegovy being available via this route.
Two of the country's leading private insurers, Aviva and AXA Health, told Reuters that they would not pay for Wegovy.
"We do not cover the treatment as private medical insurance is only designed to cover acute conditions," said a spokesperson for Aviva, which has 1.1 million UK customers with private medical insurance.
Benenden Health, which health insurance to more than 850,000 people in Britain, told Reuters it will not cover Wegovy.
Novo did not say how much supply it would make available in Britain. It is working to convince European governments and insurers to reimburse Wegovy, seeking to position it as more than a lifestyle drug.
"As we expect supply to be constrained for the foreseeable future, a proportion of available supply will be allocated for use only within the NHS to allow healthcare professionals to implement NICE guidance," the drugmaker said.
Around 50,000 eligible patients in England could be prescribed Wegovy through NHS specialist weight management services, an NHS spokesperson said in a statement.
Nearly one in three adults are obese in Britain, the highest in Europe, according to a 2019 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report.
Overweight-related illnesses account for 8.4% of health expenditure and when combined with lower labour market output, it reduces UK GDP by 3.4%, it said. Obesity is usually defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above.
Obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer in Britain and costs the NHS around 6.5 billion pounds annually, Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said in a statement on Monday.
($1 = 6.8981 Danish crowns)
(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by Alistair Smout and Amanda Cooper in London; Editing by Susan Fenton, Josephine Mason, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Alexander Smith)