England’s NHS has approved semaglutide, Hollywood’s favourite weight-loss injection. But is the hype justified?
Over the past year it’s been hard to escape Hollywood’s new favourite fat-busting treatment… Ozempic.
“What housewife isn’t on Ozempic? Not one…”Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen
Ozempic is the brand name of a drug called semaglutide. Although it is supposed to be an antidiabetic treatment, one of the side effects is weight-loss. Over the past year Ozempic has become so popular as an unofficial diet-aid that there was a global shortage of the drug for diabetics.
Here’s Shane Anthony, who has diabetes, speaking about Ozempic’s new popularity:
“It really makes me mad. It infuriates me. Us diabetics, we need it. We need it to stay alive… It’s scary, honestly. I could have a heart attack.”Shane Anthony, USA Today
But semaglutide is more than just the next celebrity thinness fad.
The company that makes Ozempic also makes WeGovy – a higher dose injection of semaglutide specifically intended to help patients lose weight. Earlier this year it was announced that WeGovy had been approved for use by NHS England.
It’s been called a “gamechanger” that could revolutionise the way we approach obesity.
But is it all too good to be true?
More than a quarter of adults in England are obese, and obesity is estimated to cost the NHS around £6 billion per year.
Semaglutide works as a weight-loss jab by mimicking a hormone which regulates blood glucose levels. It suppresses the appetite, and based on clinical trials, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – or NICE – says it can help people lose over 10 per cent of their weight.
“The clinical trials that we looked at showed that people having semiglutide alongside lifestyle interventions and lost 12 percent more of their body weight than than patients that were on Placebo and so this is a a real significant Improvement in the care for these patients.”ITV News
Semaglutide will be recommended for people who have a BMI of over 35 – which puts them near the top of the obese category – as well as a weight-related health condition such as diabetes.
It’s been reported by the Telegraph that – in the future – health officials hope weight-loss injections could be rolled out to as many as 12 million people.
For now, WeGovy will be prescribed by a specialist, and patients will only be allowed to take it for two years.
That’s one of the main concerns about semaglutide: what happens when that prescription ends? Research shows that patients might put most of the weight back on.
Here’s Yasmin Sheheen Zaffar – who first tried the drug Ozempic in 2019 – speaking to ITV News.
“I was quite upset when the weight started to come back on I was back to square one having lost the weight and then put it back on…”Yasmin Sheheen Zaffar, ITV News
Charities have also warned that weight-loss injections can be dangerous for people with eating disorders, or contribute to an eating disorder developing for someone who is already vulnerable.
So from Hollywood to the NHS, why all the focus on semaglutide now?
Ozempic and WeGovy are both made by the same pharmaceutical company: Novo Nordisk.
In recent months there have been questions raised about the influence of the Danish drug company over funding for anti-obesity measures.
An investigation by the Observer newspaper alleges that Novo Nordisk paid nearly £22m to prominent health experts, obesity charities, NHS trusts and universities in the three years before WeGovy was approved for the NHS. The paper also alleges that the company is funding the expansion of weight-loss services in England.
There’s no suggestion the company has broken any rules… but NICE has confirmed that two organisations that advised on the use of semaglutide injections failed to properly declare payments from Novo Nordisk.
And the company has been suspended from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry for two years for violating rules by (quote) “disguising” a large-scale PR campaign. That was for another weight-loss injection – Saxenda – which is already available on the NHS.
In a statement to Tortoise Novo Nordisk said that it was disappointed but accepted this decision, and added that working with the NHS and other healthcare organisations was standard practice for pharmaceutical companies. Novo Nordisk adheres to the regulatory and legal frameworks that govern the industry.
In a statement to Tortoise NICE said that it is confident that policy breaches did not have a material effect on its semaglutide guidance.
In a statement to Tortoise NICE said that policy breaches did not have a material effect on its semaglutide guidance.
They might be gaining a lot of attention… but weight-loss injections are not a silver bullet.
Obesity is deeply linked to socio-economic problems – like poverty, disability and housing access – and the availability of cheap, healthy food.
Some experts argue that until we tackle the long-term roots of the crisis… short-term medical interventions are just a sticking plaster on a bigger problem.
This episode was written and mixed by Claudia Williams.