For over six months, people with diabetes struggled to get a hold of Ozempic, a medication prescribed to control high blood sugar, because of a nationwide shortage. This led to low supply of similar medications like Wegovy.
While supply chain issues are partly to blame for the shortages, the sudden high demand for these drugs has also been fueled by some celebrities and social media influencers touting medications like Ozempic and Wegovy as one-size-fits-all options for weight loss. But these medications are not meant to be taken for short periods of time and, in most cases, should only be prescribed for people with certain chronic conditions.
Read on to learn more about these medications, who can take them, and what to do if you have diabetes or another chronic condition that requires one of these medications and are having trouble filling your prescription. (On March 17, the company that makes the medication told Reuters that the 0.25 milligram, 0.5 milligram, and 1 milligram doses of Ozempic were back in stock but that the 2 milligram doses were still experiencing a shortage.)
This article is meant for informational purposes and does not substitute your health care provider’s medical advice.
What are Ozempic and Wegovy, and who can take them?
Ozempic and Wegovy are both medication brand names for semaglutide, a drug used to control blood sugar levels. They both come in injection form and are both categorized as GLP-1 agonists, which means that they make your body more sensitive to the insulin it makes.
“For patients with diabetes it actually decreases their insulin needs,” Dr. Disha Narang, an endocrinologist and director of obesity medicine at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, tells PGN. “It slowly empties the stomach, so it makes people feel fuller faster. And so it works with the hunger hormone to suppress [it] and increases the amount of the fullness hormone.”
While there are similarities between the two drugs, there are some vital differences.
Ozempic is currently only approved by the FDA for people with type 2 diabetes, and Wegovy is approved only for people with obesity (with a BMI of 30 or higher) or who are overweight (BMI of 27 or higher) with a weight-related comorbidity like high cholesterol. Both medications can be used at different dosages.
For people with obesity or who are overweight, Wegovy is meant to treat many different conditions indirectly.
“A lot of chronic health conditions such as PCOS, high blood sugars, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis: all these conditions improve with weight loss,” Dr. Michael Weintraub, an endocrinologist at NYU Langone Health, explains.
What’s behind the shortages?
Over the past year, Ozempic and Wegovy’s developer, the Danish company Novo Nordisk, has experienced supply chain issues related to the drugs’ production. However, the off-label use of Ozempic for weight loss and its popularity among celebrities and influencers is also credited for driving its increased demand.
“There’s been a lot of inappropriate prescribing of the medication because even as of right now, the indication for Ozempic is for type 2 diabetes,” Narang says. “I think it’s being inappropriately prescribed, one because I think Wegovy was in short supply or not really being manufactured last year. But then the other part of it is that insurance coverage for Wegovy is quite limited.”
According to Narang, the high demand for the drug has even led people to some places selling a “compounded” or diluted version of the medication. “It’s being cooked up, God knows where. … There’s no regulation behind it.” And this is, of course, problematic for many different reasons.
These drugs are not a “magic wand” to lose a few pounds and not meant to be taken temporarily
These medications haven’t been around long—they were first developed in 2012, and Ozempic was approved by the FDA in 2017—so there’s not a lot of data about long-term side effects yet. While there are proven benefits for people with obesity or who are overweight and take these medications to improve other comorbidities such as high blood pressure, Weintraub says, “we don’t have any data to know what benefit or even what harms [it can cause to people] who have a normal BMI or aren’t overweight or obese. We don’t know if it benefits them, [and it] might even lead to harm with going into the underweight category.”
Ozempic and Wegovy are also not meant to be taken for a short period of time; they’re meant to be medications to treat chronic conditions.
“So it’s not to be used for a few weeks to lose a couple pounds to get into a dress or something like that. That is absolutely not the intention for the medication,” Narang adds. “Ozempic is not a magic wand either. You can’t just take [it] and think that you’re going to be 50 pounds lighter. Anybody who’s been successful on these medications will absolutely say how much their lives have changed, in terms of what they do day to day. The way they eat is different. The way they move is different.”
Narang tells her patients that these medications are a “cherry on top” of all their other efforts to change their lifestyle.
“What people on social media are not talking about is their trainers. They don’t talk about their diet, the work to get the weight off. They’re talking about these miracle drugs, but there’s no such thing as a miracle drug.”
How can patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions navigate the shortage?
Some of Narang’s patients with diabetes “have gone months without the medication, and that’s resulted in increase in blood sugars, increases in weight, increasing needs for their insulin,” she says. “You’re backtracking, because we did such a great job getting them off of insulin or decreasing their insulin needs, and now we’re kind of back to square one.”
To mitigate this, there are some things patients can do, according to Weintraub:
- Always communicate with your prescriber, as they can help you find the medication (or a different one if you need it), as well as with your local pharmacists, who may know when the next shipment of the medication arrives.
- Call other pharmacies in your area: Your local mom-and-pop may not have it, but larger chains like Walgreens, CVS, or Duane Reade may. You can also try mail-order pharmacies.
- If the dose you’re taking is not available, your doctor might suggest asking the pharmacy for a lower dose. “For example, someone might be taking Wegovy 0.5 milligrams, and their pharmacy doesn’t have that, [we’ll] see if their pharmacy has 0.25 milligrams at least for that month, until maybe a supply becomes available,” Weintraub adds.
- If none of the above works, ask your doctor if you can replace the medication with another type of GLP-1 agonist that may be in stock (there are several).