By Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Novo Nordisk will launch its hugely popular anti-obesity drug Wegovy in Japan on Feb. 22, its first launch in Asia, the company said on Thursday, even as it struggles to keep up with demand in existing markets.
The Danish company has picked Japan as the sixth country in which to launch Wegovy despite obesity being a much smaller problem in the Asian country relative to the West.
Most patients in Japan will pay 30% of medical expenses for Wegovy, in line with reimbursement for other drugs, said Novo, which is trying to convince some governments to pay for Wegovy for the most overweight.
The monthly cost for patients will be 7,504 Japanese yen ($50.15) for a 0.25-milligram starter dose and 42,960 yen for a 2.4 mg dose, Novo said.
Patients in Japan will be eligible for the drug if they have a body mass index (BMI) above 35, or a BMI above 27 for patients with two or more obesity-related co-morbidities, Novo said.
Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. In 2019, only 4.5% of adults in Japan were obese - defined as having a BMI of 30 or above - according to data from the Global Obesity Observatory.
Kobe University professor Wataru Ogawa said he was "very positive" on Wegovy's introduction in Japan, as reducing overweight symptoms can have benefits on a host of medical conditions, including types of cancer and menstrual disorders.
And while Japan has fewer cases of extreme obesity compared to many Western nations, negative health effects tend to manifest in East Asian populations at lower degrees of obesity, he said.
"Japanese people are fragile to a small increase in body weight as compared to Caucasians," said Ogawa, who serves as an executive director of the Japan Society for the Study of Obesity.
Novo has struggled to keep up with soaring demand for the appetite-suppressing drug, forcing it to limit the number of countries where it has launched and the number of patients who can start treatment.
The company has so far only launched Wegovy in the United States, Britain, Germany, Norway, and its home market Denmark.
Wegovy is the first-to-market in a new class of highly effective weight-loss drugs. But analysts say that Novo's supply constraints could allow rival Eli Lilly to get ahead, when it launches its Mounjaro weight-loss drug.
($1 = 149.6200 yen)
(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen and Rocky Swift in Tokyo; Editing by Jan Harvey and Mark Potter)