‘Orchestrated PR campaign’: how skinny jab drug firm sought to shape obesity debate | Obesity

A blockbuster new weight-loss treatment was hailed by a leading obesity expert last week on BBC Radio 4's primetime breakfast.

Professor Jason Halford has told the nation that the appetite-suppressing Wegovy injection is “one of the most powerful pharmaceutical tools” to date in treating obesity.

The problem, he said, is making sure enough people get them.

Halford's review at today Millions of programs. What was not revealed was that, as well as his academic work at the University of Leeds, he was the chair of an obesity organization largely funded by injectable manufacturers. Between 2019 and 2021, the European Association for the Study of Obesity received more than £3.65m from Novo Nordisk – equivalent to more than three-quarters of its total declared earnings over the same period. Halford has also served as an adviser to the Danish drugmaker and served on the UK advisory board.

Halford's financial ties to drug companies were not one-off.one observer This weekend's investigation detailed the company's millions of pounds in donations, event sponsorships, healthcare training schemes, charity projects, consultancies and other payments to experts and organizations before it was approved for use in the NHS.

These 3,500+ deals were separate from the company's R&D spend and totaled over £21.7m in just three years.

There are now concerns, with one expert calling an “elaborate PR campaign” by the drug company trying to shape the obesity debate. It has already been reprimanded by the UK medicines watchdog for breaching industry norms for another diet drug.

A pack of Wegovy injection pens from Novo Nordisk.
A pack of Wegovy injection pens from Novo Nordisk. Photograph: Cristian Mihaila/AP

In some cases, organizations and individuals paid by Novo Nordisk have gone on to be Wegovy's most vocal cheerleaders, publicly hailing the vaccines as “game changers.”

Others with financial ties to the company provided evidence used by medical watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), providing an official submission recommending the drug for NHS approval. Despite potential conflicts of interest, financial ties are not always clear.

There was no indication that the payments violated any rules, and the company said it never “knowingly acted” beyond ethical or legal standards. Recipients of its funding indicated that they were not affected by it and that they properly declared their interest. But critics say the findings raise questions about Novo Nordisk's attempts to boost its influence in the UK.

More than a quarter of adults in the UK are obese and obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £6bn a year.

The solution provided by Novo Nordisk, semaglutide, is marketed in the UK under the name Wegovy as a once-weekly home injection. It has been approved for weight loss in the United States for two years, has won celebrity endorsements including billionaire Elon Musk, and has gone viral on TikTok.

Last week, Nice announced that the drug, already used as a diabetes treatment under the brand name Ozempic, had been recommended for use in the NHS. Wegovy will be available in the UK “soon” for people with a BMI over 35 and at least one other weight-related condition, such as high blood pressure.

Trials of semaglutide have shown that it can help people lose up to 15% of their body weight when used with diet, exercise and support, but long-term trial data on side effects are lacking. Evidence also shows that when patients stop taking it, they usually regain most of the lost weight. Wegovy's arrival comes as progress has been slow to implement new measures to tackle obesity, such as the government's long-delayed plan to ban junk food ads on TV before 9pm.

The weight-loss drug market is estimated to be worth as much as $54bn (£45bn) over the next decade, with Novo Nordisk's sales of the drug set to rise 84% to $2.4bn by 2022 – a figure it expects A number will grow significantly by 2023.

But as the company is on the threshold of restructuring UK obesity care, there are concerns about what some health professionals are calling the “medicalisation” of obesity – and the risk that money from drugmakers could skew the debate.

transparent record by observer Reveals Novo Nordisk's efforts to foster links with the health sector.

These payments, in addition to the £28m the company spends on research and development, include donations, event sponsorships, grants and other fee. A further £4m was paid out to health specialists, including obesity specialists, such as consultation fees and lecture fees.

The business also provides financial support for the running of the All Party Parliamentary Obesity Group – a cross-party group of MPs and members of the House of Lords that lobby the government on health policy.

In some cases, fees paid by Novo Nordisk have played a key role in the Wegovy debate. Two academics who received funding from the company went on to publicly describe the drug as a game-changer in widely reported reviews. The Nice documents also show that the leading experts who provided evidence on semaglutide have direct financial ties to Novo Nordisk. In two of the three cases, the interests did not appear to have been explicitly declared.

One of the experts who provided evidence to Nice, Professor John Wilding, who led clinical research on obesity at the University of Liverpool and was president of the World Obesity Federation, recommended Wegovy for use in the NHS. But while his entry into the conflict of interest register in 2021 includes his role in the federation, there is no mention of the organization having received more than £4.3m from Novo Nordisk in the preceding three years. In addition, he received £19,414 in “service fees” from the company between 2019 and 2021 for work that was disclosed in the Register of Interests.

The World Obesity Federation said it worked to clarify “conflicts of interest and alignment of interests” and that Wilding had no role in obtaining its funding. Wilding said he “strongly disputed” the explanations for his relationship with the company and his role in Nice's decision-making process, and worked to ensure that “seriously obese people have access to all appropriate treatment.”

Experts and institutions receiving funding from Novo Nordisk say their professional opinions have never been influenced by the money.

But others said the findings point to a need for tighter controls on drug company payments to maintain transparency and trust.

Simon Capwell, emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Population Health, described the funding as an effort to “buy influence and goodwill” which is “completely unacceptable”. “We should be looking at tighter controls,” he said, adding that the “exaggeration” surrounding Wegovy was “extraordinary”. “There was an elaborate PR campaign and it's a shame so many clinical colleagues were involved.”

Wegovy has celebrity followings including Elon Musk, who told his Twitter followers it helped him lose weight.
Wegovy has celebrity followings including Elon Musk, who told his Twitter followers it helped him lose weight. Photo: NTB/Reuters

Novo Nordisk said it was “proud” to play a role in “important discussions” to “improve the prioritization, management and treatment of chronic conditions in the UK”, including diabetes and obesity, and to do so in a “transparent and ethical manner”. way” to carry out its work in line with “a stringent regulatory framework”.

“Suggesting that Novo Nordisk knowingly acted outside ethical or legal standards and due process is unfounded and misleading,” it said.

The University of Leeds said Halford had published papers in which he fully disclosed his relevant interests. A spokesman said: “Professor Halford receives no remuneration for his consultancy work – all payments are made to the University.”

The BBC said that on Wegovy's Radio 4 programme, the presenter highlighted the drug's problems, but it admitted “any links to Novo Nordisk should be checked more thoroughly”.

Grants from pharmaceutical companies such as Novo Nordisk are for collaborative projects, the European Association for the Study of Obesity said, with the partners disclosed on its website. “Industry partners are not involved in any project planning, agenda setting or decision making,” a spokesman said. Halford did not respond to a request for comment.

Nice said it would review the findings to assess whether its policies were being followed, and that it had “robust” rules on conflicts of interest. The UK Pharmaceutical Industry Association, a trade body, said it could not comment on specific findings, but that it took “any reported or confirmed breaches” of industry codes “very seriously”.

Lib Dem fellow Joan Walmsley, a member of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity, said she welcomed Wegovy's approval to join the NHS “for those who desperately need it”. But she said it was “not a panacea”. “Transparency is key so that people are not overly influenced by one aspect of the story,” she said. “There may be another side.”

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