Ozempic maker urges UAE users to switch to Wegovy for weight loss

Price of game-changing drug unlikely to come down soon, despite more competition

Wegovy is being released in countries, including the UAE, to reduce the use of diabetes medicine for weight loss. Reuters
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The amount of people using the diabetes medication Ozempic for weight loss led to the manufacturers launching a similar drug to ease supply problems for diabetics.

Manufactures Novo Nordisk fast-tracked the release of Wegovy due to the lack of availability of Ozempic, which was creating problems for diabetics who needed the medication.

Both Wegovy and Ozempic use the key ingredient semaglutide, a peptide that mimics the GLP-1 hormone released after eating to give an indication of satiety and reduce appetite.

Although licensed for diabetes, a sharp rise in use of Ozempic for its weight loss properties left those with diabetes struggling to access medication in 2022 and 2023.

It is important we give the opportunity for obese patients to have semaglutide treatment and we've seen huge increase in demand in this region
Mads Bo Larsen, vice president and general manager of Novo Nordisk UAE

Since then, the Danish company fast-tracked Wegovy, a similar drug now licensed for weight loss in nine countries.

Mads Bo Larsen, vice president and general manager of Novo Nordisk UAE, said Wegovy was launched in the UAE because of concerns over the off-label use of Ozempic, with doctors prescribing medication for reasons other than their licensed approval.

“This is why we have introduced Wegovy [in the UAE] because this is specifically for obesity, and Ozempic is for diabetes,” Mr Larsen told The National.

“That's the way we want to position it and to make sure that at least the diabetes patient can get their GLP-1 treatment.

“But it is important we give the opportunity for obese patients to have semaglutide treatment and we've seen huge increase in demand in this region.”

Wegovy is currently available for weight loss in Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Spain, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, the US, UK and the UAE.

It has been billed as a potential solution to a global obesity crisis that the World Health Organisation now says affects one in eight people.

“We have not been able to supply sufficiently, with big problems in 2023 and also at the end of 2022,” said Mr Larsen.

“That has made it difficult for us to say how much is being used off label and how much is being used for diabetes.

“It has been a problem that diabetes patients have not been able to find product in the pharmacy.

“That hurts when you are a pharmaceutical company that is providing treatments for chronic diseases.

“When patients who have a prescription, even through insurance, cannot get Ozempic, that is painful to see and why we introduced Wegovy here.

“Hopefully it can relieve some of that burden on supply.

“Once you introduce a new product, if you are the only one, of course, prices are at a certain level.

"But over time, price will always go down. That's the way it is."

Soaring demand

High demand for the drugs has led to a sharp increase in company profit.

In 2021, Novo Nordisk had a market capitalisation of $171 billion, whereas only three years later it is nearing $600 billion.

In the first quarter of this year, operating profits increased by 30 per cent to $4.6 billion, although prices for Ozempic and Wegovy vary across the world.

Prohibitive costs for the weekly injection prevent many with obesity from accessing the game-changing drugs that can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer that comes with being overweight.

In the UAE, the drugs cost about Dh1,200 ($326) a month.

According to industry analysts KFF, Ozempic costs about five times as much in the US ($963) as in Japan ($169), with Wegovy four times as expensive in the US ($1,349) as in Germany ($328).

Dr Hazem Aly, clinical, medical and regulatory director at Novo Nordisk, said prices are unlikely to come down any time soon, despite other pharmaceutical companies entering the market with similar products.

“The standard practice for pharmaceutical industry is not the same for each and every country, so prices will vary,” said Dr Aly.

“It also depends on the negotiations with the local authorities.

“We cannot have one price fits all for all the countries.

"The beauty about this kind of therapy is that each and every company is trying to bring the best innovation for their patients.

“Even if it is competition for us, it is very good thing for the sake of the patient.”

Novo Nordisk is investing heavily in treatment for diabetes, a condition that affects about 17 per cent of the UAE population, with those numbers expected to double by 2045, the International Diabetes Federation has said.

Continuing research by the company is looking at developing glucose sensitive insulin to minimise the risk of hypoglycaemia, causing blood sugar levels to drop, and thermostable insulins which do not require cold storage.

Marcus Schindler, executive vice president of research and early development, and chief scientific officer at Novo Nordisk, said the next big development could be amylin, a similar peptide hormone to GLP1, that can control blood sugar levels.

Novel diabetes drugs

Research is under way to see how amylin and insulin can combine in a single injection to give diabetes patients more control over their condition.

“We've seen both preclinical, but also early clinical data, that makes us really confident that this could be the next big thing,” said Dr Schindler.

“It's released from the beta cell, actually in the pancreas.

“So we now have two mechanisms that are appearing naturally, GLP1 and amylin.

“We're making them better and fit for purpose to potentially give treatments.

“What is interesting for us about peptides is that they're very potent because nature invented them, so safety is not as much of an issue as we see with small molecules.”

Updated: May 22, 2024, 5:26 AM