December 4, 2023

The latest craze on social media is not a dance challenge or a viral meme, but an injectable medication originally designed to treat diabetes.

Known as semaglutide and marketed under names such as Ozempic and WeGovy, the drug has recently gained popularity as a weight-loss tool.

TikTok and Instagram videos theorise Kim Kardashian used the medication to lose weight for her outfit at the 2022 Met Gala.

Celebrity doctor and republican candidate Dr Oz spruiked semaglutide on his television show, and billionaire Elon Musk tweeted that the drug featured in his own weight-loss regime.

Here’s how the surging demand for the diabetes drug has resulted in a worldwide shortage, leaving Australians waiting months for their next dose.

What is semaglutide?

Semaglutide is a medication that works by mimicking hormones that control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

The medication has also been found to affect appetite resulting in fewer cravings, a change in preferences away from fatty foods and less overall energy intake.

In one study, participants lost on average 15 per cent of their body weight while taking the drug.

Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk markets semaglutide under the brand name Ozempic, which comes as a once-a-week injection.

A different dosage specifically designed to tackle obesity — called WeGovy — is registered on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods but is not yet available in Australia.

Further studies on semaglutide have shown drawbacks to its use.

In clinical trials, 44 per cent of WeGovy patients reported nausea compared to 16 per cent treated with a placebo, while 30 per cent of WeGovy users reported diarrhoea compared to 16 per cent of placebo patients.

Trials also found that patients taken off semaglutide on average regained two-thirds of their weight once they stopped using the drug.

It means that use of semaglutide is probably not a permanent fix.

Who is using semaglutide?

Ozempic-branded semaglutide has been available in Australia since 2019 and is used by Type-2 diabetics to manage blood sugar levels.

But in recent years, the drug has gained popularity in Australia to treat obesity.

Melbourne resident Rachel* began using the drug out of a desire to lose weight. 

“Even people who are a part of the fat acceptance movement have reached that mental point, after years and years of dieting and then regaining that weight, or dieting and losing a little bit, and then plateauing,” she said.

“Always struggling with this niggling sense of hunger that you just can’t let go of.”

Rachel discovered semaglutide through a New York Times article, one that reported measurable weight loss for those who took it in clinical trials.

Her GP had never even heard of the drug from the article when Rachel raised it, and she had to be referred to a specialist to obtain it.

A pill bottle overturned with pills spilling out of it
Rachel tried traditional medications and surgery to treat her obesity but found no long-term success in controlling her weight.(Unsplash: Olga DeLawrence)

Rachel had tried all of the available treatments. Medications, such as appetite suppressant phentermine, caused anxiety and insomnia, and bariatric surgery had not helped her long term.

Ozempic was working for Rachel where other treatments had not.

While Rachel finally had access to treatment she found effective, its growing popularity coincided with a dwindling supply in Australia.

Rachel found she was facing increased questioning about her use.

“In some [pharmacies] … they started asking me ‘do you have diabetes?'” she said.

After nearly two years of using Ozempic, Rachel could no longer find the drug anywhere.

What has caused the shortage?

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has directly linked the flood of social media coverage with the semaglutide shortage in Australia.

“When social media posts increased about achieving rapid weight loss with Ozempic they triggered a huge demand for the product that the manufacturer was not prepared for, and it quickly developed into a worldwide shortage,” a TGA spokesperson said.

Elon Musk on stage holding a microphone.
Elon Musk claims semaglutide product WeGovy has featured as part of his own weight-loss regime.(NTB: Carina Johansen via Reuters )

The TGA does not expect Ozempic to be available in the country until at least March 2023, with other countries experiencing similar shortages.

Britain is already restricting access to semaglutide to specialist weight-loss clinics and has not made it available to GPs due to the cost.

With new supplies months away, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has advised GPs not to initiate Ozempic for new patients until the shortage subsides.

Chair of the diabetes specific network at the RACGP Gary Deed said the sophistication of the drug treatment made supply issues an “international problem”.

“They come in very sophisticated delivery devices, so it’s a combination of not only the difficulty in manufacturing the medication, but also the devices required to administer them,” Dr Deed said.

He said that no diabetic person would be in danger if they remained in contact with their GP and sought alternative treatments. 

A man in a suit with his hands folded in front of him
Gary Deed says the RACGP is urging doctors to prescribe alternative treatments for diabetes and obesity that may be just as effective as semaglutide.(Supplied)

What impact is the shortage having?

Besides its popularity on social media and its effectiveness for some patients, another factor drew Australians to Ozempic: it was relatively affordable.


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