By Stine Jacobsen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – The world’s top maker of diabetes drugs Novo Nordisk beat profit and sales forecasts in the first quarter and kept its full-year outlook as diabetics stocking up during the coronavirus pandemic led to a surge in demand for its medicines.

Novo Nordisk joined U.S. rival Eli Lilly and other drugmakers in keeping or even raising full-year forecasts as lockdowns to combat the spread of the virus lead to stockpiling of drugs.

“COVID-19 related stocking at patient levels significantly impacted our results, however, we are satisfied with the underlying performance,” Chief Executive Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen told journalists on Wednesday.

First-quarter sales jumped 14% to 33.9 billion Danish crowns ($4.9 billion) measured in local currencies, beating the 31.5 billion crowns forecast by analysts, but growth would have been only half that level without COVID-19-related stockpiling.

The higher stock levels would be gradually reversed during the remainder of the year and in 2021.

Operating profit came in at 16.3 billion crowns, compared to an average 14.2 billion crowns expected by analysts. Shares in the Danish company, which have gained almost 40% in value over the past year, rose around 2% in early trading.

Novo still expects sales to grow between 3% and 6% and operating profit to rise 1%-5% this year, both measured in local currencies, despite uncertainties stemming from the outbreak as fewer patients visit their doctor at times of social distancing.

“The number of people getting diabetes is not changing so the patients are there but it is clear that when healthcare systems are focused on COVID-19 there is less initiation of new patients,” Jorgensen said.

He said there would probably be a “pool of patients” waiting to get treated for type 2 diabetes after the pandemic. Novo said the outlook was based on the assumption that patient flows would normalise in the third and fourth quarter.

It was also uncertain how the staggeringly high U.S. unemployment numbers would impact sales if many patients either lose health insurance coverage or opt for lower-income schemes.

“The current COVID-19 pandemic causes uncertainty to the outlook regarding patient flow and societal impacts such as the unemployment rate in the US which is impacting healthcare insurance coverage,” it said.

Eli Lilly said last month it could see lower payments for its drugs if patients shift to Medicaid – the federal and states-run plan for low-income individuals.

(Reporting by Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu and Keith Weir)