Weight loss drug trend on TikTok worries doctors

release: Modified:

PARIS (AFP) — Diabetes drug Ozempic has become a social media phenomenon for its weight-loss properties, but its soaring popularity has led to a global shortage and doctors have warned of potential side effects.

Videos under the hashtag #Ozempic have nearly 600 million views on TikTok, with many users regularly updating followers on their weight loss.

Thanks to Ozempic, “losing 40kg (88lb) in less than three months is possible,” said a French TikToker in a typical December post, which has nearly 50,000 views.

“It's a miracle,” he added.

The injectable drug from the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk was originally developed and approved in many countries for the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

The drug's active ingredient, semaglutide, binds to receptors for the hormone that controls blood sugar, stimulating the release of insulin when blood sugar levels are high.

It slows down the rate at which food leaves a person's stomach, thereby reducing their appetite.

In early 2021, peer-reviewed studies found that nearly three-quarters of people who took the drug lost more than 10% of their body weight.

Since then, Novo Nordisk has developed a higher-dose semaglutide drug called Wegovy, specifically for the treatment of obesity, which was approved for use in the United States in 2021 and in Europe and the United Kingdom last year.

Wegovy is not yet available in the UK, France or several other countries, but Ozempic is available by regular prescription.

“Not a miracle drug”

This has led to an increase in non-diabetics getting prescriptions for Ozempic, as well as “fake prescriptions,” said Jean-Luc Faillie, a pharmacology expert at the University of Montpellier in France.

Douglas Twenefour, head of care at Diabetes UK, said on the charity's website that Ozempic “is not a medicine for people who do not have diabetes or are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes”.

French medicines regulator ANSM is urging doctors to prescribe Ozempic only for diabetes.

“There has been no particularly sudden increase in consumption in recent months,” ANSM said, adding that there had been “supply tightness” globally.

Novo Nordisk told AFP that “stronger-than-anticipated demand” for Ozempic had led to “intermittent supplies and period stock-outs” globally.

Ozempic was initially developed and approved in many countries for the treatment of type 2 diabetes
Ozempic was initially developed and approved in many countries for the treatment of type 2 diabetes © JOEL SAGET / AFP

It added that the company's global manufacturing facilities “now operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” to bridge the gap.

Doctors fear semaglutide may not be available to people with diabetes as demand soars from people seeking to lose weight.

Karine Clement, an obesity expert at France's INSERM Institute for Medical Research, said that when Wegovy came on the market, people had to strictly adhere to the prescription.

“It's not a magic drug,” she said. “As with obesity, it must be accompanied by a comprehensive treatment plan.”

side effect

Doctors have also raised concerns about semaglutide's side effects, which Faillie said are underdiscussed.

“Neither patients nor prescribers have an incentive to report” side effects, he said.

Nausea is the most common side effect of medications.

But “there are rarer and more serious risks, such as acute pancreatitis — which can occur even at lower doses — biliary tract disease, and rare cases of severe constipation that can lead to intestinal obstruction,” Faillie said.

He also noted “an increased risk of thyroid cancer” after several years of treatment.

While the risks are reasonable given the benefits for people with diabetes, “there are still uncertainties, especially in the long-term, for obese patients,” he said.

“If it's being used to lose a few kilos, the therapeutic effect is zero,” adds Faillie.

“That's just cosmetic, and the risks are still there.”

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