The UK is pouring millions into a programme to tackle obesity with weight loss drugs such as Wegovy.
The UK has launched a £40 million (€46.5 million) pilot programme to tackle obesity using the latest weight loss drugs.
Over the course of two years, the government will study how currently approved drugs can be made available to more people, through GP prescriptions and other means outside of the hospital setting.
The programme is intended to relieve pressure on the NHS, with obesity costing the health service £6.5 billion (€7.55 billion) a year.
“Using the latest drugs to support people to lose weight will be a game-changer by helping to tackle dangerous obesity-related health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer – reducing pressure on hospitals, supporting people to live healthier and longer lives, and helping to deliver on my priority to cut NHS waiting lists,” said UK prime minister Rishi Sunak.
Wegovy is one of the drugs that will be used in the pilot, having been recently recommended for use by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
Billed as a weight loss jab, it is just one of a number of diabetes drugs available that has been found to help people lose weight.
Designed to help people with type 2 diabetes to control their blood sugar levels, the demand for Wegovy and other diabetes drugs skyrocketed after celebrities and influencers on social media reported that their doctors had prescribed them off label for weight loss.
What is Wegovy?
Along with Ozempic and Rybelsus, Wegovy is a brand name for semaglutide, an antidiabetic medication which is also used as a weight loss medication.
Developed by Danish multinational pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, semaglutide acts the same way as a natural hormone in the body that has been found to regulate appetite, by making people feel more full.
It comes in pre-filled pens for injecting once a week in the abdomen, thigh, or upper arm - and it can be administered by the user themselves.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) authorised its use for treatment of diabetes in 2018, and then in 2022 for treatment of obesity in adults.
The drug does have some potential side effects, including headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, and abdominal pain.
The EMA said it decided the benefits are greater than the risks it poses, as obesity can lead to severe health problems and the side effects of the drug are “manageable”.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved the drug for weight loss, but the US marketing specifies that Wegovy provides warnings for “inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), gallbladder problems (including gallstones), low blood sugar, acute kidney injury, diabetic retinopathy (damage to the eye's retina), increased heart rate and suicidal behavior or thinking.”
‘New way of tackling obesity’
NICE recommended Wegovy for adults with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 35 and one weight-related health condition – such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
It said there is evidence from clinical trials that Wegovy can help people to lose up to 15 per cent of their body weight after one year, when prescribed alongside diet, physical activity, and behavioural support.
Under current recommendations, only around 35,000 people in the UK have access to Wegovy as it can only be made available via specialist weight management services within hospitals.
The pilot programme will look to expand this access to tens of thousand more people.
“Tackling obesity is a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan – it can have devastating consequences for the nation’s health, leading to serious health conditions and some common cancers as well as resulting in significant pressure on NHS services,” said NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis.
“Pharmaceutical treatments offer a new way of helping people with obesity gain a healthier weight and this new pilot will help determine if these medicines can be used safely and effectively in non-hospital settings as well as a range of other interventions we have in place.”
Due to its toll on health and health services, obesity is high on the agenda for governments across Europe.
More than half of Europeans are overweight, while nearly 20 per cent are obese.