A shocking contrast in a scramble to acquire a popular drug named Ozempic, designed for treating type 2 diabetes, has emerged in Britain and the United States. John, a tech executive fighting a health battle, has managed to stockpile a nine-month supply, while Kim Gradwell, a retired receptionist suffering from type 2 diabetes for nearly two decades, fears she won’t get access to her next dose. The medicine is proving to be quite effective in helping people lose weight and as a result, supplies of the active ingredient, semaglutide, have run short in these countries.
This glaring gap in access reveals a harsh reality: even in countries with free public healthcare like Britain, those with money are able to get much-needed treatments that are in short supply in the National Health Service (NHS), despite government prioritization efforts. It was revealed that even after the British government intervened to prevent Ozempic reaching people seeking weight loss, individuals such as John, who claimed to be “obese and well off,” found alternative means to stockpile the drug by paying thousands of pounds through online sources, while NHS-reliant diabetics struggled to fill government-paid prescriptions.
The saga began in July when the situation reached a boiling point, prompting the British government to declare a semaglutide shortage and take corrective measures to deter the private sale of Ozempic for weight loss. However, this has not curbed the availability of Ozempic on the market.
The drastic dichotomy in access endures due to the existence of a regulatory loophole in the UK, as the government’s Medical Regulatory Bodies are not empowered to prohibit prescribing drugs they think will benefit individual patients. Even after the release of Wegovy, a semaglutide drug intended solely for weight loss, Ozempic’s shortage persists.
This shortfall is a growing concern for both patients and healthcare professionals. Diabetics unable to access Ozempic face erratic blood glucose levels, potentially risking serious health complications or even death.
The UK’s medical regulatory bodies “do not have the right to ban doctors from prescribing drugs they believe to be helpful to individual patients,” says Penny Ward, a Visiting Professor in Pharmaceutical Medicine at King’s College in London.
It’s worth noting that globally, the situation isn’t very different in the U.S., where healthcare regulators also lack the authority to inhibit clinicians from prescribing such drugs even during times of scarceness.
According to the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, although there isn’t a ban on this drug for obesity, clear guidance states these medicines should only be used for the treatment of type 2 diabetes to protect supplies, and not be routinely prescribed for weight loss.
John, the tech executive, revealed that he has managed to maintain a continuous flow of Ozempic by spending a significant amount of money to access it. And he is not alone. Other online pharmacies jumped into the fray after the government’s restrictions were announced.
The British regulatory bodies such as the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) maintain strict guidelines and expectations for pharmacies offering such drugs. Yet, reports of violations and ineffective compliance have been brought to light.
In light of the persisting shortage, the manufacturer, Novo Nordisk, has promised to ramp up production. However, they, in combination with the government, do not foresee the shortage diminishing before mid-2024.
The dramatic and troubling disparity in access to this drug continues to unravel unresolved challenges in the healthcare sector, affecting countless patients on both sides of the Atlantic. As the saga endures, individuals like John remain vigilant in their battle with health issues, embodying the dark underbelly of a tale where healthcare for the masses is off-kilter.