A £40m pilot scheme at the heart of the government’s anti-obesity strategy has been delayed due to a major shortage of weight-loss injections.
Ministers announced in June that GPs would supply tens of thousands of patients with semaglutide in a bid to improve their health and reduce waiting lists at hospitals.
But growing global demand for the drug, sold by Danish firm Novo Nordisk under the brand name Wegovy, has delayed both its NHS launch and the two-year schedule indefinitely.
Now there are concerns that it could be scrapped entirely.
Rishi Sunak said weight-loss injections will be “a game changer” by helping to address obesity-related health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.
Ministers announced in June that GPs would supply tens of thousands of patients with semaglutide in a bid to improve their health and reduce waiting lists at hospitals. But growing global demand for the drug, sold by Danish firm Novo Nordisk under the brand name Wegovy, has delayed both its NHS launch and the two-year schedule indefinitely.
Health officials said the pilots, which Novo Nordisk (pictured) confirmed have not started yet, will only start after Wegovy is launched and available in the UK. A Novo Nordisk spokesperson told the i newspaper: ‘The pilot scheme is not working in the UK and we do not have a confirmed launch date for Wegovy in the UK. We are working to make Wegovy available in the UK as soon as possible’
This, in turn, would reduce pressure on hospitals and “help meet my priority of reducing NHS waiting lists,” the prime minister added.
But health officials said the pilots, which Novo Nordisk confirmed have not started yet, will only start after Wegovy is launched and available in the UK.
A Novo Nordisk spokesperson told the i newspaper: ‘The pilot scheme is not working in the UK and we don’t have a confirmed launch date for Wegovy in the UK.
“We are working to make Wegovy available in the UK as soon as possible.”
The shortage is expected to last until mid-2024 at the earliest, with 2025 looking more likely before the drug becomes widely available, after the general election.
Labor has refused to commit to launching the pilot program if it wins at the polls, saying it will focus on marketing junk food and improving school sports to combat obesity.
Shadow public health minister Andrew Gwynne said: “The prime minister has announced a pilot for a drug that is already in short supply, without knowing how many doses are needed, how it will be implemented or how many patients will be eligible.
No wonder he couldn’t get it going.
A source close to the health secretary, Steve Barclay, hit back at Labor, saying: “Labor say they want to tackle obesity, but they won’t back innovation that could make a real difference.”
“They can’t be trusted to care for patients.”
Semaglutide has been hailed as a “miracle” weight loss drug by celebrities like Elon Musk and Jeremy Clarkson.
Trials of Wegovy, which is injected weekly, found that those taking it lost about 12 percent of their body weight and cut their chances of getting type 2 diabetes by more than half.
Meanwhile, a recent study showed that it can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular disease by one-fifth in people who are overweight or obese.
The jab works by hijacking the brain to suppress a person’s appetite and reduce their caloric intake.
The pilot scheme is part of several measures ministers are taking to combat obesity, which costs the NHS around £6.5bn a year and is the second largest preventable cause of cancer.
About one in four adults (26 percent) and children ages 10 to 11 (23.4 percent) are living with obesity, which increases their risk of disease.
Despite being hailed as one of the most powerful pharmaceutical tools to date, experts have warned that it is not a “magic pill” or silver bullet. Trials have shown that users can quickly pack on the pounds once they stop taking the drug and it can trigger a variety of unpleasant side effects. Users commonly complain of nausea, constipation, and diarrhea.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Our £40m two-year pilots will see thousands more people living with obesity access the newest medicines like Wegovy.”
Semaglutide has been available in the UK since 2019 as a prescription diabetes medicine, under the brand name Ozempic.
However, diabetics have suffered from shortages after a major 2021 trial identified a key use for the drug as an effective weight loss treatment.
The NHS could prescribe the injections to obese and overweight patients via mobile phone apps under new plans announced today by the medicines watchdog.
Up to 50,000 people could benefit from the new ‘online clinics’ as hospitals cannot keep up with the demand for weight control services.
People referred to these specialized services will have the option of skipping the waiting list for face-to-face treatment and accessing them online according to the proposals published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).
The apps will also offer users access to meal planning, exercise advice and mental health support.
Wegovy and Ozempic, which contain semaglutide, trigger the body to produce a hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1 that is naturally released from the intestines after meals.
Experts estimate that as many as seven in ten people do not have access to a local specialist weight management service in their area due to a postcode lottery in provision.
To be referred, individuals will need to have a body mass index (BMI) greater than 35 and a weight-related condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Mark Chapman, acting director of medical technology and digital assessment in Nice, said: “Traditional face-to-face services treating people living with obesity cannot keep up with demand.
“The waiting lists are long, some areas have no service and patients need a solution.”
The four recommended applications (Liva, Oviva, Roczen or Second Nature) will be able to prescribe the weight loss injections liraglutide (Saxenda) and semaglutide (Wegovy).
Anyone referred to use the app will be clinically evaluated and supported through a treatment program that will last from six to 24 months.
Mr Barclay said: “The use of apps in weight management services will improve access to support which, along with life-changing medicines, can help fight obesity, which costs the NHS billions every year and is the second most important cause of cancer.