What is Ozempic and why is there a global shortage of the drug?

Videos tagging the diabetes medication on TikTok have been viewed millions of times

Diabetes drug Ozempic is being used by people who do not have the condition as a way to rapidly lose weight. Photos: Hollandse Hoogte / Shutterstock, Towfiqu Barbhuiya / Unsplash
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An injectable medication has become the latest drug used by celebrities and endorsed on social media for weight-loss purposes. This has led to a global shortage in many countries for those who need it.

Ozempic, which is stocked in UAE pharmacies for Type 2 diabetes patients, contains semaglutide, an ingredient that acts as an insulin regulator, helping the pancreas to release the correct amount of insulin when blood sugar levels are high.

However, over the past year, the drug, manufactured by Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, has been sought out by non-diabetics owing to its side effects, which include rapid weight loss.

This is disturbing because not only has Ozempic’s popularity lead to a global shortage of the drug, meaning diabetes patients are unable to access it, but also some of its side effects can be harmful and even potentially fatal.

“Increased demand for Ozempic 0.25mg and 0.5mg, and 1mg solution for the injection in pre-filled pens has led to intermittent shortages globally, which are expected to continue into 2023,” Novo Nordisk wrote to the healthcare industry last month.

The side effects of insulin regulation drug Ozempic include loss of appetite and nausea. AFP

Further, in the list of FAQs on the Ozempic website, it cites the most common side effects as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and constipation. Serious side effects are listed as pancreatitis, changes in vision, kidney failure, serious allergic reactions, and “possible thyroid tumours, including cancer”.

"Some other side effects of Ozempic include hypoglycemia, dizziness and gastroenteritis," says Dr Salman Abdul Bari at RAK Hospital. “It is being used by non-diabetic patients who are in a normal weight range, and who may not know that it’s not safe for pregnant or breast-feeding women."

Dr Hala Youssef Hamdy, a specialist endocrinologist at RAK Hospital, adds: “Ozempic should also not be taken by patients with a family history of medullary carcinoma of thyroid. Serious side effects include gallbladder stones and retinopathy.”

The science behind Ozempic

“Semaglutide (Ozempic) was developed in 2012, and is an anti-diabetic medication used to treat Type 2 diabetes,” says Badiani. “Ozempic works by mimicking the action of GLP-1, a naturally occurring hormone that helps to regulate blood glucose levels. By binding to and activating the GLP-1 receptor, it stimulates insulin secretion and lowers glucagon secretion when blood glucose levels are high.”

Social media and celebrities responsible for misuse?

Reporting on the drug’s widespread use in Hollywood, industry publication Variety noted: “Moguls, reality starlets, veteran film producers and, of course, actors are quietly singing the drug’s praises on Signal, the encrypted messaging app mostly used for confidential conversations. Hair, make-up and styling teams for celebrities have come to accept the injections as part of grooming rituals ahead of major events.

“In a matter of months, it has become the worst-kept secret in Hollywood — especially given that its most enthusiastic users are not pre-diabetic and do not require the drug.”

Further, videos tagging Ozempic on TikTok have been viewed millions of times.

“Losing weight, for many, can be a long and arduous process of eating healthy and working out," says Badiani. "Ozempic is seen as an easy way to lose weight.”

However, she adds that, as with most quick-fix solutions, “those taking Ozempic for weight loss, once they stop the medication, they are likely to put weight back on as the appetite suppressant effect stops”.

Celebrities who have fuelled the conversation around Ozempic include Khloe Kardashian and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kyle Richards, who have both taken to social media to deny accusations they have taken the drug for weight loss.

More recently, American comedienne Chelsea Handler said on the Call Her Daddy podcast that she had no idea she was being prescribed Ozempic by her doctor. She says she stopped taking it once she realised it was a drug for diabetics because it would be “too irresponsible” for her to take it.

One celebrity who has been open about taking it is British TV host Jeremy Clarkson, who wrote about it in his column for The Sunday Times. “You inject yourself once a week, upping the dose each time, and it dulls your appetite,” he wrote. “It’s genuinely incredible ... Of course, I’ll have to insert some balance in the future, or I’ll, you know, die. But for now it’s tremendous.”

The experts, however, vociferously disagree. As Bari puts it: "Physicians across the world do not recommend it for normal-weight patients for cosmetic purposes."

Updated: January 27, 2023, 7:01 AM