On Wednesday, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially declared obesity to be a disease. The AMA currently defines obesity as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30. At previous points, the AMA had referred to obesity as a “major health concern,” a “complex disorder,” and an “urgent chronic condition.” But moving obesity classification of “disease” will have several implications. Notably, if obesity is no longer considered merely a lifestyle choice in need of tweaking, insurance companies could be required to cover the cost of weight loss drugs. According to Vivus, approximately 30 percent of insurers cover its obesity drugs. Some providers such as Aetna (AET) and Blue Shield do include coverage for weight loss drugs, but this new definition could cause that number to rise significantly.
This is news that could affect pharamceutical companies such as Arena and Vivus significantly.
Arena Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (ARNA)
This San Diego-based biopharmaceutical company could be a major beneficiary of the ADA’s declaration. On June 27,2012 the FDA approved the obesity-reduction drug lorcaserin, which will be marketed by Arena under the name Belviq. Belviq stimulates serotonin so patients feel satiated, and thus more full after meals.
Arena announced last week that after a few delays, they’d finally be rolling out Belviq. Since obesity is now considered a disease, Belviq could be covered under most insurance plans that currently force patients to pay out of pocket for obesity-reduction drugs. Belviq was specifically approved for patients with a BMI over 30, or people with a BMI over 27 who suffer from at least one obesity-related condition like high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, or high cholesterol, which fits neatly into the AMA’s new parameters for defining obesity.
Arena suffered a setback earlier this year when they withdrew the European Union application for Belviq. Their stock opened the day at $7.60 a share on moderate trading, and is down nearly two percent on the day. Their next earnings report is August 7.
Vivus, Inc. (VVUS)
Mountain, California based Vivus beat Arena to the punch in the obesity pharmaceutical battle, rolling out their own drug Qsymia last September. And Qysmia, a combination of phentermine and topiramate, has been shown to produce weight loss more effectively than Belviq. Qysmia is currently also approved by the FDA for patients with a BMI over 30, or over 27 with blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, or high cholesterol.
Qysmia though, has faced sluggish sales despite outperforming Belviq on weight loss effectiveness. Analysts have speculated this might be due to Qysmia’s side effects, which include drowsiness, increased heart rate, and increased chance of birth defects for pregnant women. Belviq has a relatively clean safety profile in comparison.
Vivus opened the day at $14.15 a share and is seeing above-average volume. This is well down from Vivus’ high posted on July 18, 2012 of $31.21 a share. Their next earnings report is August 5.