Revealed: experts who praised new ‘skinny jab’ received payments from drug maker | Pharmaceuticals industry

The pharmaceutical giant behind a weight-loss injection newly approved for use on the NHS has spent millions in just three years on an “elaborate PR campaign” to boost its profile in the UK.

As part of its strategy, Novo Nordisk has paid £21.7m to health organizations and professionals who in some cases continue to praise the treatment, without always making clear their affiliation with the company , observer The investigation found.

Among proponents of the Wegovy jab, with one clinical expert giving evidence to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), others have publicly hailed the so-called “skinny jab” as a “game changer”.

The revelations come as the Danish pharmaceutical giant is under investigation by the UK drug watchdog after it was found to have breached industry norms seven times in relation to another of its weight-loss drugs via an online webinar for healthcare professionals. “Promotion in disguise”.

The British Pharmaceutical Industry Association said it had ordered an audit of the company's practices and company culture to determine whether the breaches were one-offs or part of a wider web of compliance failures.

The more than 3,500 payments made by Novo Nordisk in 2019-21 included donations, event sponsorships, grants and other payments to prominent obesity charities, NHS trusts, the Royal College, GP practices, healthcare Fees for educational institutions and universities. In addition, Novo Nordisk spent £28 million on research and development in the UK during the same period. Novo also helped fund a group of MPs who lobbied for an obesity strategy.

this observer can reveal:

  • A professor who promotes the benefits of vaccinations on the BBC today Last week's show featured a former consultant to Novo. Jason Halford is also the president of an obesity organisation, which paid out more than £3.6m. Listeners are not informed of these links.

  • Nick Finer, a former University College London professor emeritus and an expert who hailed the drug as a “game changer”, was Novo's senior clinical scientist until July last year and had a stake.

  • A third prominent scientist to give evidence to Nice, Professor John Wilding, was the chairman of an organization that had been paid by Novo more than £4.3m over three years. A declaration of interest he filed with Nice indicated the donations were not made public.

There was no indication that the payments violated any rules, and the company said it never “knowingly acted” beyond ethical or legal standards. Those receiving funding said they were not affected and had properly declared their interests.

While independent experts have described the recommendation to make the drug available on the NHS as “good news”, there are concerns that public debate could be influenced by pharmaceutical industry funding.

Simon Capewell, emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Population Health, said the Novo payments were meant to “buy influence and goodwill”. He said: “There was an elaborate PR campaign, and it's a shame so many clinical colleagues were involved. We should consider tighter controls on these kinds of payments.”

Professor Allyson Pollock, professor of public health at Newcastle University, said Novo's campaign was “not unusual” in the pharmaceutical industry and called for measures to improve trust. “The public really isn't fully aware of the potential for bias and exaggeration,” she said.

Biggest recipient of cash is allegedly obesity charity observer Pharmaceutical Industry Disclosure Log Analysis.

Novo Nordisk paid £4,326,698 between 2019 and 2021 to the World Federation on Obesity (WOF) calling for the treatment to be funded as an “essential health service”. European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) during the same period. These donations make up a large portion of the charity's income, but Novo is not mentioned in their books.

Both organizations are affiliated with the UK Association for the Study of Obesity (ASO), which provided evidence to Nice that Wegovy is “the most effective obesity treatment available to date”. The ASO received a £100,000 donation from Novo in 2021 and said its interest had been properly declared.

Nice also heard evidence from the Royal College of Physicians, which has received more than £100,000 in event sponsorship from Novo Nordisk. Sponsorship was not announced to Nice. RCP tells observer It is supposed to provide information voluntarily, but Novo's funding has “no influence” on the views it offers, which are based solely on its knowledge and expertise.

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Nice said it had a “robust policy” for declaring interests and that openness around potential conflicts was “vital” so they could be managed properly. “We will review the information provided against our policy on declaring and managing interests for the Nice Advisory Council,” the watchdog said.

Novo Nordisk said it was “committed to working with policymakers in a transparent and ethical manner, and within the strict regulatory and legal framework that governs best practice in our industry and parliament”. “Suggesting that Novo Nordisk knowingly acted outside ethical or legal standards and due process is unfounded and misleading,” it added.

It said it was not involved in arranging media appearances for clinicians related to its products, and that its involvement with MPs in the all-party group on obesity ended in July 2021. Regarding its webinars, it says its intent is to educate health professionals on weight management, but admits it made major mistakes.

A woman shows a heart with her hands on a fat belly on a black background.
Obesity treatment has been described as an essential health service. Photo: Vladimir Polikarpov/Alamy

The University of Leeds, where Halford is studying, said he published a paper that “fully disclosed” his interest. A spokesman said Halford was not paid for the consultancy work and any payments from Novo were made to the university.

Finer said he had always correctly disclosed his interest, and made clear in comments last week to the Science Media Center, which provides commentary for news outlets, that he was a former Novo employee. WOF and EASO indicated that their decision-making processes and activities were not influenced by industry donations. Wilding said he “strongly disputed” the explanation for his relationship with Novo and his role in the Nice process.

He added that he was working hard to ensure that “severely obese people have access to all appropriate treatment”, but declined to comment further.

The market for obesity drugs could reach $54 billion within the next decade, according to financial services firm Morgan Stanley. Semaglutide, marketed in the UK as Wegovy, was approved for use in the UK's NHS last week.

In the US, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has raised concerns about payments made by Novo Nordisk to help promote its obesity treatment. Novo's political action committee has given more than $210,000 to federal candidates for 2022 inauguration, some of whom want Get the US government to fund Wegovy at a cost of $1,300 per patient per month.

This article was revised on March 12, 2023 to properly refer to the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, rather than the “Committee of Physicians for Responsible Medicine” as stated in an earlier version.

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