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Chinese pharmaceutical companies are developing domestic versions of “miracle” weight-loss drugs as they take on western drugmakers selling anti-obesity medication in one of the world’s biggest markets.
Chinese drug companies hope to compete with the Danish pharma group Novo Nordisk’s pioneering drugs in China, which has the world’s largest overweight and diabetic population. If successful, they could also potentially offer a cheaper alternative in the west.
The new generation of weight-loss drugs form part of a category called glucagon-like peptide-1 agonists or GLP-1s. Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide or Ozempic dominates the market, but dozens using the same mechanism are undergoing clinical trials in China, analysts said.
“There will be an explosion in supply at the latest by 2026,” said Beijing-based UBS pharmaceutical analyst Chen Chen.
Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy, a version of Ozempic marketed for weight loss, is in short supply globally after it was found to produce a 15 per cent average reduction in patients’ body weight. The market for diabetes and new weight-loss drugs is forecast by analysts to reach $130bn-$140bn in sales worldwide.
Chinese health officials have said tackling diabetes and obesity is a top policy priority as the country’s ageing population takes a toll on the hospital and social care systems. Some 89mn people are living with diabetes in China, just over 8 per cent of the population, a figure that The Lancet forecasts will reach 108mn by the end of the decade, or 10 per cent of the population.
While many multinationals are trying to diversify sales away from China, western pharmaceutical groups including Moderna and AstraZeneca are digging in, striking investment deals and joint ventures with local companies to capitalise on the huge potential presented by the ageing population. Novo Nordisk currently dominates the $500mn Chinese market for GLP-1 drugs, according to analytics group Clarivate.
So far Chinese regulators have approved Novo Nordisk’s drug only for diabetes, but users can get it from doctors for weight loss or purchase it on the black market. The same compounds are used to treat diabetes and obesity.
Last month Beijing gave the first approval for GLP-1 weight loss drugs, made by Chinese companies Huadong Medicine and Shanghai Benemae Pharmaceutical.
Analysts predict Novo Nordisk will soon gain approval in China for its weight-loss drug Wegovy, which only requires an injection once a week, compared with the daily dose for Huadong’s and three doses for Benemae’s medicine.
Helen Chen, greater China managing partner at LEK Consulting in Shanghai, said as many as 70 drugs were being trialled but domestic rivals would not “make much of a dent” until they were included on a government procurement list.
Even if domestic rivals capture a larger share of market demand, analysts are still projecting revenue to grow for Novo Nordisk.
Clarivate forecasts GLP-1 sales in China will grow eight-fold to reach $4.2bn in 2031, with Novo Nordisk still the market leader.
In the west, Novo Nordisk faces competition from US pharma group Eli Lilly’s tirzepatide, also known as Mounjaro, which is expected to receive approval for weight loss soon. In a phase-three trial, participants lost an average of 22.5 per cent of their body weight.
The pair will also compete in China when Eli Lilly introduces tirzepatide for weight loss. It has also sold the rights for its weight-loss drug mazdutide, currently in phase-three trial, to the Suzhou-based biotech group Innovent.
Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimate Innovent will account for 19 per cent of GLP-1 sales in China by 2033, given its strong clinical results and marketing spend.
Meanwhile, a Chinese rival keen to take a slice of this growing market is challenging Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide patent, which is due to expire in 2026. Last year, China’s National Intellectual Property Administration judged in favour of Huadong, which argued Novo Nordisk’s patent was invalid. The Danish group is appealing against the decision in a higher-level court.
Cheaper Chinese drugs might also prove attractive to stretched healthcare systems in the west, analysts said.
Emily Field, an analyst at Barclays, said obesity drugs were a “price-sensitive” market. “My reading of the tea leaves on this is that over time it will evolve into portfolios of options of orals and injectables,” she said.
Less effective and cheaper drugs could still be attractive, she said. “Some patients absolutely do need to lose 50 per cent. For some, 15 per cent is a healthy range.”
London-based UBS pharma analyst Michael Leuchten said 5-10 per cent weight loss was not a high bar for these companies to meet. But he added that to be approved in the US, Chinese companies would have to show data collected in trials outside of China, a lengthy process.
“Then if there is a very cheap option that is pretty good, some pragmatic countries might open the door to local players,” he said. “Government players will love you for it as prices come down.”