Countries Are Placing New Bans on Ozempic—Could the U.S. Follow?
Officials are pushing against this increasingly popular prescription amid shortages.
Ozempic has overtaken the weight-loss industry. Known generically as semaglutide, the drug was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017 for adults with type 2 diabetes. But in the last year, its popularity has skyrocketed thanks to its dramatic effects in helping people shed pounds faster than ever. At the same time, Ozempic has faced unprecedented controversy, as this heightened demand has led to dangerous shortages and new stories of serious side effects. Now, some officials are taking a stand against the medication. Read on to find out which countries are placing new bans on Ozempic, and if those same restrictions are likely to hit the U.S.
A Canadian province restricted the sale of Ozempic earlier this year.
The popularity surrounding Ozempic's weight-loss abilities previously prompted officials in Canada to take action. Back in the spring, British Columbia began restricting the sale of the diabetes drug after U.S. residents started seeking prescriptions in Canada, The Wall Street Journal reported. The province's health ministry said that it would bar doctors and pharmacists from dispensing Ozempic to people who don't live in Canada.
"We are ensuring the continued availability of Ozempic," Adrian Dix, British Columbia's health minister, told The Wall Street Journal at the time. "We don't want to become a supplier for the U.S. market."
Now another country is planning a ban on this medication.
With its restrictions, British Columbia's health ministry said it is also trying to ensure that Ozempic prescriptions are reserved for people using it to treat diabetes—not for weight loss. Now, another country has revealed that it wants to do the same. Officials in Belgium are planning to place a temporary ban on the use of Ozempic as a weight loss treatment amid a shortage of the drug, Reuters reported.
"We have told doctors that they must reserve this drug for their patients who have type 2 diabetes but we see that this strategy does not work," Belgian federal health minister Franck Vandenbroucke told Belgian broadcaster RTBF on Oct. 23, per Reuters.
The country's working group on the availability of medicines—which includes representatives of pharmacists, insurers, distributors, the pharmaceutical industry, and the government—are set to meet soon to decide the specifics. But Vandenbroucke said it is likely that the Ozempic ban will last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the production and availability of the drug.
There is currently an Ozempic shortage in the U.S.
Demand for Ozempic has overwhelmed supply in the U.S. The semaglutide injection is currently on the FDA's Drug Shortages list, with the agency estimating that "limited availability" will last at least through the end of 2023. If you look at the data, that shouldn't come as a surprise.
A recent report from Trilliant Health revealed that U.S. health care providers wrote more than nine million prescriptions for Ozempic and similar diabetes drugs like Wegovy in the last three months of 2022—reflecting a quarterly increase of 300 percent for these prescriptions.
As in many other countries, the Ozempic shortage in the U.S. is hurting patients who use the drug for their diabetes. Ozempic is not approved for weight loss by the FDA, but providers can prescribe it "off-label" as a weight-loss treatment instead of a diabetes treatment, CNN reported. This 0ff-label prescribing of Ozempic has become more than twice as common over the last two years, with more than a third of people taking the medication having no history of type 2 diabetes, according to Trilliant Health.
"At the start of this year, and definitely in the last two quarters of last year, we were running into a lot of shortages of Ozempic for our patients with type 2 diabetes," Disha Narang, MD, an endocrinologist and director of obesity medicine at Northwestern Medicine, Lake Forest Hospital, told CNN. "So our patients with type 2 diabetes were unable to reliably get their medication, and that became a problem."
But there's no evidence that the country is likely to ban or restrict the drug.
Currently, there is not a major push for the U.S. to enact similar bans to that of Canada or Belgium. And despite the ongoing difficulty diabetes patients face in getting Ozempic amid its rising popularity, many medical professionals in the country seem comfortable continuing to prescribe it for weight loss.
"Obesity is an epidemic," Anne Peters, MD, an endocrinologist at Keck Medicine, who has been working with these types of drugs for 20 years, said in a blog post for the healthcare system. "Many people are obese and overweight in the United States. That causes all sorts of health problems. So, if we can help people lose weight easily and simply, why not use all the tools we have available?"
On the other hand, U.S. insurance companies have started cracking down on the off-label prescription of Ozempic, The Washington Post reported. Elevance Health, an insurer that operates Anthem plans, said that it won't cover Ozempic unless a patient is diagnosed with diabetes and has tried another medication to manage it.
"Nationwide shortages have occurred due to the large uptick in off-label prescribing," the insurer stated in warning letters sent to various physicians, noting that patients with diabetes "often cannot find the medication in stock."