How does Wegovy work? The ‘game changing’ weight loss drug beloved by Hollywood

Ministers have announced plans which could see tens of thousands given access to new weight-loss drug

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Monday 04 September 2023 09:54 BST

The government has announced plans to funnel tens of millions into piloting the expansion of weight loss management programmes beyond hospitals in a bid to make it easier for people to access weight-loss drugs.

The move has come as part of its drive to reduce growing obesity rates in the UK. What are these new weight loss drugs, and what are the potential benefits and concerns we need to be aware of?

What is Wegovy?

Wegovy, the brand name used for Semaglutide, is a weight loss drug developed and owned by Novo Nordisk. Semaglutide works in terms of weight loss by suppressing a person appetite.

The drug has also been marketed stateside under the name of Ozempic, which had been touted as the miracle celebrity weight loss drug. Novo Nordisk reported demand for the drug in the US had exceeded its current supply activity and it was forced to limit quantities.

Earlier this year the National Institute for Care and Excellence recommended the use of Semaglutide – also known as Wegovy – for adults with a body mass index of 35 and over and one related health condition.

Ozempic, and Rybelsus (another brand name for Semaglutide) are also recommended by NICE for the use of people specifically those with type two diabetes for managing blood glucose levels.

The side effects of Semaglutide include nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, dizziness and fatigue.

Under the current rulings by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency products containing Semalgutide are only available via prescription in the UK.

What are the government’s plans for weight loss drugs?

Under the current advice, NICE Wegovy would only be available through specialist weight management services – which are primarily NHS hospital based.

However, the government appear to want the drugs to be available more widely and so has announced £40 million to fund pilots which will look at how weight loss management services can be expanded beyond hospitals. One thing the pilots will look at is how the drugs could be prescribed in the community by GPs, for example.

According to the DHSC, NICE is currently looking into approving the use of another diabetes drug – Tirzepatide – for weight loss also.

It is clear Ministers are now targeting the “treatment” side of the rising public health issue.

The health secretary Steve Barclay has claimed there could be “significant” economic benefits to prescribing the weight loss drug to more people.

What do the experts think?

Experts have welcomed the focus on obesity which has come with the government’s interest in WeGovy. However, there are concerns it is taking a short-termism approach which in the end will not provide a sustainable change in tackling the health issues linked to Obesity.

What this week’s DHSC press release doesn’t mention is that under current clinical research results the weight loss associated with the drugs only lasts if they are being taken – which is a maximum of two years under the current recommendations. It is not clear whether the drugs prevent weight gain after they’ve been stopped.

What is yet to be made clear is whether the government intends to increase funding for community weight loss programmes beyond drugs and less flashy public health programmes to prevent obesity.

Calorie content of dishes on menus forms part of the government’s plans for Obesity

Prof Keith Frayn, Emeritus Professor of Human Metabolism, University of Oxford, said while the announcement is good news for those struggling with obesity it is merely a “sticking plaster covering a much bigger problem.”

According to Professor Ryan, the government must tackle the wider drivers of Obesity and its root causes rather than just the treatment of it.

Dr Duane Mellor, Registered Dietitian and Senior Lecturer warned: “Although this investment in weight management to support people living with obesity is welcome, it is far from the game changer the Prime Minister suggests.  It would be far braver to tackle the society issues which underpin risk of living with obesity, ill health and health inequalities…

We cannot simply as a nation buy our way out of a health issue by using a drug, we need to use the medications we have wisely and shape our society in a way that gives people the hope and ability to enjoy a healthy lifestyle no matter what their background might be.”

Are there any wider concerns about the drugs?

There are clear concerns that Semglutide only has short-term weight-loss benefits and would not pose long-term solutions for patients.

Without helping people to manage their weight through sustainable methods they could see rapid weight gain after stopping the drug which in itself could have health risks, one doctor previously told The Independent.

A wider less obvious issue more, previously reported by The Independent, circulating among psychiatrists and those within the mental health sector.

Dr Agnes Ayton, former chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, previously told The Independent: “We are aware that some messaging framing Semaglutide as a quick-fix weight loss aid may act as a potential trigger for those living with an eating disorder and poses a real danger for abuse of the medication by those for whom there is no clinical need to use it.”

The drugs are currently not available without prescription but with digital and online weight loss clinics – those not based in hospital settings- could the drug be accessed by those who might suffer harm?

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