Business Maverick


Aspen’s Novo Nordisk deal a ‘feather in our cap’ and an NCD battle boost – top executive

Aspen’s Novo Nordisk deal a ‘feather in our cap’ and an NCD battle boost – top executive
From left: The headquarters of Novo Nordisk in Bagsvaerd outside of Copenhagen, Denmark, 1 February 2017. (Photo: EPA / Liselotte Sabroe) | A scientist uses a culture flask and pipette in the cell therapy labs at the Novo Nordisk A/S research facilities in Malov, Denmark, 12 June 2023. (Photo: Carsten Snejbjerg / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | The Aspen Pharmacare Holdings building in Gqeberha, South Africa, 25 October 2021. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The success of the Danish company – Europe’s second most valuable – is largely built on its weight-loss drugs.

Aspen Pharmaceuticals’ contract to “fill and finish” human insulin for Novo Nordisk at its Gqeberha manufacturing facility offers hope for diabetics and for the local economy but, more than that, it’s a key step in the fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which kill an estimated 41 million people worldwide each year.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory health account for more than 80% of all premature NCD deaths globally – worsened by tobacco and excessive alcohol use, inactivity, unhealthy diets and pollution. 

The World Health Organization says that each year 17 million people die from an NCD before the age of 70, and 86% of these premature deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Dr Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen Pharmacare’s senior executive responsible for strategic trade development. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images)

Communicable diseases are converging with NCDs, which are a “silent and creeping pandemic”, and arguably more destructive than Covid and many other infectious diseases, explains Dr Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen Pharmacare’s senior executive responsible for strategic trade development, on the sidelines of the Developing Countries’ Vaccine Manufacturers’ Network (DCVMN) meeting in Cape Town. 

It is the 24th meeting of the alliance of over 40 vaccine manufacturers from 15 developing countries involved in innovation, research, development, manufacturing and supply of high-quality vaccines globally. 

The DCVMN aims to protect people against known and emerging infectious diseases globally by increasing the production of vaccines in developing countries. 

This year, the focus is on NCDs as a public health emergency, pandemic preparedness and the rising tide of NCDs – also pandemics that can be even more catastrophic and expensive than Covid. 

Each vial of human insulin will cost $3, as part of Novo Nordisk’s commitment to produce affordable insulin for vulnerable patients. 

Treating NCDs is onerous on the economy and the healthcare system. The global prevalence of diabetes is 6%, with between 20% and 25% of the diabetes population eventually needing insulin. 

In Africa, there are currently fewer than 2.2 million people on insulin – even though an estimated 24 million adults have undiagnosed Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in Africa. 

“Africa has an understated access to insulin,” Nicolaou says. 

“The problem with not treating a Type diabetic is that they become a tremendous burden on the state, which weakens healthcare systems.” 

Aspen had invested R6-billion in the Gqeberha facility, expecting to become a major producer of Covid vaccines for Johnson & Johnson. 

The new deal provides employment for about 250 people.

Nicolaou hails the deal as a significant breakthrough for the continent and especially for South Africa, where 60% of women are overweight – a strong precursor risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. 

Diabetes is a silent killer and “hugely” underdiagnosed because most people only seek treatment once they are in an advanced stage, which adds to the burden on the state. 

The deal with Novo Nordisk, which has a market capitalisation of 2.2-trillion Danish krone (R6.1-trillion), will see Aspen producing about 16 million vials of human insulin for 1 million patients next year. By 2026, production will be increased to 64 million. 

For now, Aspen’s deal is confined to human insulin. Nicolaou says it’s an important step for the continent because it increases the diversity of manufacturing. 

“It also is a feather in our cap in terms of our technical and manufacturing capabilities, our scientific capabilities, and I guess it’s one step at a time.”

Healthy sign

Novo Nordisk is Europe’s second-largest company by market cap. Europe’s most valuable, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has a market cap of about $400-billion (R7.54-trillion).

Danish pharmaceutical companies’ success internationally has prompted the country’s central bank to raise its economic growth forecast through to 2025, reports Bloomberg.

Denmark’s GDP will probably expand by 1.7% this year, up from a March estimate of 0.9%, the central bank said on Wednesday. The Danish economy is also set to grow by 1.3% in both 2024 and 2025, compared with the previous forecast of 1.2%.

The economic growth is “surprisingly strong”, the central bank said, hinting that figures may be skewed by activities taking place outside Denmark, especially within the pharmaceutical industry. 

Novo Nordisk dominates the pharmaceutical industry in Denmark, with the sector making up about 5% of the country’s economy. 

Much of Novo Nordisk’s success is fuelled by bumper demand for its new weight-loss drugs, Wegovy and Ozempic, which rose to prominence in the US after the the Food and Drug Administration approved Wegovy’s use for weight loss in 2021. Ozempic contains the same active ingredient – semaglutide. 

Celebrity endorsement has helped. Last October, after Elon Musk – who has been widely body shamed on social media – was asked by a Twitter user on the platform what his secret was to looking “fit, ripped, and healthy”, to which he reportedly replied, “fasting” and “Wegovy”, reported Sky News.

Amy Schumer, Sharon Osbourne and former UK prime minister Boris Johnson have also admitted to using the products, although they said it made them sick.

More than 100 million American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Novo Nordisk is so important to the economy that, in the Danish government’s latest review of the economy released last month, it mentioned the company 31 times, reports Bloomberg. DM


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