Wegovy Finally Gains Regulatory Approval in China

Novo Nordisk scored approval to sell its Wegovy weight loss drug in China. That’s a big win, but competitors will soon flood in.

Photo of three Novo Nordisk flags
Photo via Novo Nordisk

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The war against obesity knows no boundaries. 

On Tuesday, Novo Nordisk scored approval to sell its Wegovy weight loss drug in China. That’s a big win for the Danish pharmaceutical giant — though the company has precious little time before competitors flood in, too. With shortages already widespread, can Novo Nordisk make the most of the opportunity?

The Weighting Game

Novo Nordisk is already making big money in China. Ozempic — its drug for treating diabetes, which also uses semaglutide as a core active ingredient — has been available in the country since 2021. Last year, Ozempic sales in China doubled to around $698 million. But China’s market for the general weight loss drug Wegovy is far bigger than its market for diabetes treatment — in fact, it’s the biggest in the world. Nearly half of the nation’s 1.4 billion citizens are overweight or obese, according to a 2023 report, a figure that’s only expected to grow in the coming years (the prevalence of diabetes among Chinese adults, for reference, is around 11%).

Unfortunately for Novo Nordisk, plenty of competitors have also realized the market potential for weight loss drugs in China. Meanwhile, the window for Wegovy’s prime exclusivity is already starting to slip shut:

  • Novo Nordisk’s patent for semaglutide in China will sunset in 2026, opening the door to generic versions: In Europe and Japan, its patent isn’t set to expire until 2031, while it lasts until 2032 in the US. An ongoing legal fight at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court could bring about the expiration even sooner.
  • Meanwhile, Reuters reported earlier this month that clinical trial records show at least 15 generic versions of the drug are already in development in China. And in May, Eli Lilly gained Chinese regulatory approval for its diabetes drug Mounjaro, likely clearing the way for general weight loss drug Zepbound, which shares the same active ingredient, tirzepatide, as Mounjaro.

Still, excitement over the news further fueled Novo Nordisk’s unending share price climb, with shares increasing another 3% by end of day Tuesday.

Boom or Bust: The initial launch of Wegovy in China will be volume-capped, available only to patients with a comorbidity who are willing to pay out of pocket. Even so, the new market will add to the company’s acute supply problem. Wegovy has remained on the FDA’s official shortages list for over a year — clearing the way for a market of “compounded” versions in the US. On Monday, the company announced it was investing $4.1 billion to build a 1.4 million-square-foot production facility for both Ozempic and Wegovy in Clayton, North Carolina. The plant, however, won’t be completed until sometime between 2027 and 2029, so an even bigger crunch may be coming soon.