Weight loss via Wegovy

Wegovy is a lifelong medication. For drugmakers, that’s a win-win

The western hemisphere is hooked on to a new drug. Celebrities and comedians, billionaires and barbies, Hollywood actors and television anchors are dramatically losing weight after taking the “skinny jab”, a weekly, weight-loss injection. They shed 15 per cent of their body weight, an astonishing loss-rate compared with two per cent with diet and exercise.

The slimming drug—originally developed to treat diabetes—is an innovation by a 100-year-old, little-known Danish pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk. It specialises in diabetes medications and its Ozempic drug for diabetes became a runaway hit. Not for treating diabetes, but for its side-benefit of losing weight. Seizing the opportunity, the company modified the drug to enable obese people without diabetes to shed pounds.

The eternal quest for shrinking waistlines guarantees the expansion of corporate bottomlines. Sensational sales of the newly licensed Wegovy weight-loss drug skyrocketed Novo Nordisk’s market capitalisation to $440 billion, exceeding Denmark’s total GDP this year. It also became the world’s third biggest pharma firm and Europe’s most valuable company, overtaking the iconic French luxury goods and champagne maker, LVMH.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Ironically, the weight-loss drug comes from Denmark, the least obese nation in Europe. But obesity is a global phenomenon. The US is a mighty, weighty nation, where 42 per cent of the population are obese. American standup comedian Richard Jeni said, “There is an obesity epidemic. One out of every three Americans weighs as much as the other two.” Former US surgeon general Richard Carmona warned, “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.” This is especially true in China, which has the world’s most diabetic adults and overweight children. China is getting older and fatter before it gets richer.

Until now, weight-loss drugs under-performed or had serious side effects. Wegovy contains the compound, semaglutide, which mimics a hormone that inhibits appetite and cravings, thus reducing food intake. Sales skyrocketed as celebrities endorsed the “miracle” medicine.

Trials by Novo Nordisk showed that the weight-loss reduced the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 20 per cent. Martin Lange, Novo Nordisk’s executive vice-president, exults the initial result was “out of this world”. So are valuations. When the American pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly announced its plans for a similar drug, its market capitalisation rose by 77 per cent to $500 billion, making it the world’s most valuable drug company.

Wegovy is effective, but expensive, costing $1,300 a month per person. Most obese people cannot afford it. Government subsidy for Wegovy means cutting resources for deadlier diseases like cancer. But China is already developing cheaper alternatives that may flood the weight-loss market, expected soon to swell to $150 billion. In the offing are also new drugs to treat child obesity.

But no solution is perfect. Wegovy’s side-effects include nausea and stomach problems. Animal studies showed increased risk of thyroid cancer. European regulators began investigations into reports of users’ experiencing suicidal thoughts and stomach paralysis. Lange claims the trials disprove these claims. Obese people say these risks are minor compared with the emotional, social, physical, mental and relationship stress they suffer. Obesity also causes arthritis, depression, high cholesterol and blood pressure. The injection has another drawback. If you get off the jab, you will gain back all the weight—and then some, as cravings return. Wegovy is a lifelong medication. For drugmakers, that’s a win-win.

Pratap is an author and journalist.