Shortages of diabetes drugs in the UK will last until at least the end of the year, the government has warned, as demand for medications such as Ozempic to help with weight loss surges.
The warning came as the Department of Health and Social Care this week told healthcare providers not to prescribe diabetes medication for non-licensed purposes such as weight loss, and for existing stock to be reserved for patients with type 2 diabetes.
The move by the government is a sign of how the drugs’ use for weight loss risks disrupting supplies for diabetes patients. It represents a strengthening of guidance against prescribing the drugs — known as GLP-1s after the hormone they mimic — to manage obesity first issued in July. At the time the government said it anticipated shortages until the middle of 2024.
“Existing stock must be conserved for patients with (type-2 diabetes) to mitigate the risk of impaired access to treatment and increased risk in diabetes-related complications,” said a patient safety alert issued to healthcare providers this week.
GLP-1s like Ozempic, produced by Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, help those with type-2 diabetes to regulate their blood sugar levels. However, the drugs’ ability to suppress appetite has also led to their widespread use for weight loss.
Pharmacists have also reported a shortage of Wegovy, a Novo Nordisk alternative specifically designed for weight loss that contains the same active ingredient as Ozempic, which is available on the NHS through specialist weight management services.
Just under 3.9mn people in the UK have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which prevents sufferers from producing enough insulin naturally to control their blood sugars.
The government’s decision was welcomed by the charity Diabetes UK, which said the surge in prescriptions for the drugs for weight loss was partly to blame for a global shortage.
Douglas Twenefour, the charity’s head of care, said the shortages had “serious implications for many people with type 2 diabetes”.
Diabetes patients can use insulin instead of GLP-1s but the government warned the enforced switch could affect supplies of the hormone, which it said remained “good”.
Demand for Ozempic and Wegovy helped to make Novo Nordisk Europe’s largest company by market capitalisation. US pharma giant Eli Lilly is also expanding supplies of its weight loss drug Mounjaro, which the UK approved in November.
Supply shortages are not limited to the UK. The EU’s European Medicines Agency in December warned that there would be shortages of Ozempic throughout 2024 because of increased demand and manufacturing constraints.
Barclays has forecast that sales of Wegovy will reach $7.3bn this year, while Ozempic sales are expected to be worth $16.5bn in 2024. Canadian investment bank BMO forecasts that the diabetes and weight-loss drug market will eventually grow to be worth as much as $140bn in annual sales.