The Ozempic shortage explained

You might’ve heard of Ozempic, a Type 2 diabetes medication that also happens to be really effective for weight loss. Celebrities rumored to have used it have been accused of sparking a social media frenzy around the drug, causing a shortage. But the reasons for the shortage are a lot more nuanced.

Ozempic vs Wegovy: What's the difference

Ozempic was developed by pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk and FDA-approved in 2017. It was a game changer for people with Type 2 diabetes looking to lower their blood sugar. In clinical trials, researchers found that Ozempic was really effective for weight loss. So Novo Nordisk rebranded semaglutide as “Wegovy” for weight loss, at a bit of a higher dose than Ozempic. “The active ingredient in Ozempic and Wegovy is identical. It's the same medication. It's semaglutide. To me, it's ridiculous that they need to make two different medications that are exactly the same and label them differently. But nonetheless” says @mad_endo, endocrinologist. 

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In 2021, Wegovy was FDA-approved for people with obesity or overweight with at least one weight-related condition. In trials, Wegovy helped people lose, on average, nearly 15 % of their starting body weight. The drug was a Godsend for people who had struggled to lose weight and manage their weight-related conditions even after changing their diet and exercise. “When Wegovy was launched, the company really went out and marketed it well. Plus they had the savings card so that people could get it at a relatively inexpensive rate. It being once a week, people were more willing to do it, and the weight loss that we saw was substantially higher than with the other medications”, explains the endocrinologist.

What is the problem with Ozempic?

Wegovy became so popular that Novo Nordisk couldn’t keep up with the demand, but doctors were told the shortage was temporary. “And so many physicians go, “Well if it's temporary, then we'll prescribe Ozempic instead to tide them over until Wegovy problem is fixed,” but the problem then was that the Wegovy shortage kept going on and then there was the Ozempic shortage”. Doctors were able to prescribe Ozempic off-label for weight loss, which is permitted once a treatment is cleared for something other than Type 2 diabetes. And unlike Wegovy, it’s easier to get covered by insurance, encouraging more doctors to prescribe it. “Wegovy, on the other hand, is a lot harder to get covered because there are some plans that just have a blanket “We don't cover weight loss medications.” They won't cover anything”, says @mad_endo.

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Word of Ozempic spread among celebrities who could afford to buy it without coverage, and several public figures have commented on its use in Hollywood, such as Chelesea Handler on “Call her Daddy” podcast. Ozempic then started trending on TikTok, where #Ozempic stands at over 470 million views as of the time of this recording. So, at this point, Ozempic is being prescribed for both diabetes and weight loss and, as news of the shortages came out, many accused people using the drug for weight loss of taking away crucial medicine from people with Type 2 diabetes.

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What happens if you suddenly stop Ozempic?

But those using off-label Ozempic for weight loss say obesity is also a chronic illness and that the vast majority of these prescriptions are written for people with obesity or overweight with at least one weight-related condition. For people who use semaglutide for weight loss, stopping or switching medications can worsen any weight-related conditions. So what happens if someone with Type 2 diabetes can’t get access to their Ozempic prescription? Well, they could switch to a different medication, but they’d be missing out on benefits only Ozempic can provide.

So how did we get here? Well, if you combine the groundbreaking effectiveness of semaglutide for both diabetes treatment and weight loss, Novo Nordisk’s hardcore marketing of these drugs, celebrity rumors, the power of TikTok, and manufacturing delays, we get the shortages we have today. ”I can understand why people who are doing well on their Ozempic feel angry that they can't get it now because people are using it for other purposes. But I don't blame the people who are using it. I blame the lack of manufacturing. We live in a country where over two thirds of the population are either overweight or obese. We live in a country where over 25 million people have diabetes, most of whom have Type 2. If you're going to say, “We want you to use our drug all the time,” then you better be prepared to give all of these people medication”, explains the endocrinologist.

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