The British government announced on Wednesday (Jun 7) that it will begin a pilot study to examine how more obese individuals outside of specialised facilities in hospitals might receive new injectable weight-loss drugs like Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy.
The National Health Service’s (NHS) specialised weight management programme is where the weekly shot should be administered to adults with at least one weight-related condition and a body mass index of 35, according to the £40 million (US$50 million) pilot programme, which follows NICE’s recommendation.
Although Novo rationed beginning doses last month to ensure supplies to US patients currently taking the drug, the timetable of Wegovy’s launch in Britain, which would be just the fourth country to utilise it, is uncertain.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Sunak stated that the pilot for the new weight-loss drugs aiming to combat obesity-related diseases and promote weight loss would alleviate the strain on hospitals. The initiative would also contribute to “enabling people to lead healthier and longer lives while helping to fulfill my priority of reducing NHS waiting lists.”
Particularly in England, the NHS faced a challenging winter with record-high waiting lists and staff strikes demanding higher pay due to double-digit inflation.
Obesity stands as a leading cause of severe health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, costing the NHS £6.5 billion annually.
“Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro”
The government revealed that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was considering the potential use of Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro, also known as tirzepatide, by the NHS. Currently licensed to treat diabetes, it is expected to gain approval for obesity treatment as well.
The two-year pilot program will explore the safe prescription of these weight-loss drugs by general practitioners and how the NHS can provide community or digital support.
Novo’s restrictions on the uptake of Wegovy in the United States have effectively delayed its launch in Britain and other European countries. Even in the US, the drug’s full-scale launch began only earlier this year, after Novo overcame production issues at a contract manufacturer.
Regarding the British pilot, a spokesperson from Novo Nordisk declined to comment on any commitment to supply their drug.
“Novo Nordisk is aware of the government’s ambition to not only retain but also reintegrate individuals into the workforce. As part of this, preliminary discussions have taken place on the role of treating obesity to support this goal,” the spokesperson stated.
The British government stated that only 35,000 individuals would have access to Wegovy through specialist hospital services, but tens of thousands more could be eligible.
The treatment has already garnered significant interest elsewhere. Superdrug, one of the largest pharmacy chains in Britain, reported in April that its remote prescriptions service, Superdrug Online Doctor, was anticipating substantial demand for Wegovy.
“Superdrug Online Doctor has witnessed registration levels five times higher than anticipated,” a spokesperson informed Reuters at the time, without disclosing specific figures.
Denmark and Norway have launched Wegovy outside the US, but major medical insurance schemes in those countries deny coverage, arguing that the additional costs cannot be justified by the health benefits.
Britain’s decision is likely to spark a debate on whether drugs are the appropriate solution to address the escalating public health issue of obesity or if other measures to promote healthier lifestyles should take precedence.
Duane Mellor, a dietitian and senior lecturer at Aston University’s medical school, noted that drugs like Wegovy are a tool rather than a solution.
“It’s a political decision to show that the government is taking action to tackle health issues associated with obesity… We need to be more courageous and innovative in addressing the root causes related to healthcare access and making healthy food enjoyable.”
Wegovy operates by mimicking a hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which induces a sense of fullness in the body after eating. Clinical trials have demonstrated an average weight loss of approximately 15%, in combination with dietary and exercise modifications.