Novo Nordisk, the Danish drugmaker, is exploring whether a new class of medicines that help people lose weight and control diabetes also has potential in fighting COVID-19.
Research shows people afflicted by obesity and diabetes often fare worse in trying to overcome SARS-CoV-2. Now initial analysis of electronic medical records shows that GLP-1 drugs, which help patients keep blood sugar levels in check, could be a "very meaningful therapy" in helping people with diabetes battle COVID-19, Novo Chief Scientific Officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen said in an interview. He pointed to evidence the virus attacks cells that produce the hormone insulin.
"The early indication is that the GLP-1 class is actually beneficial in COVID-19," he said. "That's not unexpected because this is the class of agents that target the risk factors for bad Covid-19 outcomes."
GLP-1 drugs include Novo's Ozempic for diabetes and Saxenda for obesity. Sales of such drugs, which also include Eli Lilly's Trulicity and AstraZeneca's Bydureon, totaled more than $11 billion last year, according to a report from Grand View Research.
Novo, the world's biggest maker of diabetes drugs, is studying the role such medicines could play as researchers and governments rush to find treatments to combat the coronavirus. The US last month cleared use of convalescent plasma - which uses blood from people who have recovered from Covid-19 to help those currently infected - on an emergency basis for some cases.
That added to a growing list of therapies available to doctors. In May, regulators granted emergency authorization to the Gilead Sciences antiviral drug remdesivir, while dexamethasone, a widely available generic anti-inflammatory drug, has shown life-saving promise.
Patients with COVID-19 can suffer from an inflammatory condition in which the immune system overreacts to the virus, causing damage that is worse than the infection itself. Studies show that semaglutide, the key ingredient in Ozempic, "dampens systemic inflammation" in people with diabetes and obesity, Thomsen said.
Novo is carrying out further studies and will make the results public if it can substantiate the preliminary data, he said. Thomsen added that there's no clinical evidence that GLP-1 drugs have an antiviral effect on COVID-19.
Novo has bet on GLP-1 drugs including Ozempic, forecast by analysts to generate $3.4 billion in sales in 2020. Saxenda is expected to cross $1 billion in sales this year. The company expects regulators to decide whether to approve semaglutide in obesity at the end of next year, or the middle of 2021 if it decides to use a priority review voucher, Thomsen said.
Research indicates that obese and overweight people are at high risk of suffering severe cases of COVID-19, with a French study last month finding that only one in 10 who end up in intensive care with the disease were in a range of healthy weight. Another report in August highlights concerns future vaccines for COVID-19 could be less effective for individuals with obesity due to a weakened immune response.
"Obesity, hypertension and diabetes are big risk factors for bad outcomes," according to Thomsen. "But it is also so that the virus puts further stress on your cardiometabolic condition."