A “game changer” weight loss injection said to be popular among celebrities is to be made available through the NHS in England for certain people living with obesity, health officials have announced.
Thousands are expected to be offered the appetite suppressant Wegovy on prescription after the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) gave it the green light for NHS use.
Experts described the decision as a “pivotal moment” for the treatment of people living with obesity but others warned that the drug is not a “quick fix”.
A previous study found that people who are given the drug, which comes as a weekly injection, saw their weight drop by 12% on average after 68 weeks.
Nice has issued final guidance recommending semaglutide (also known as Wegovy and made by Novo Nordisk) for adults with at least one weight-related condition and a body mass index (BMI) score of at least 35.
The weight-related conditions that make obese people eligible include type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, high blood pressure, dyslipidaemia (unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels), obstructive sleep apnoea and heart disease.
In some cases, people with a BMI of 30 and over may be able to access the drug, which is given via a pen injector.
People will only be given Wegovy on prescription as part of a specialist weight management service involving input from several professionals, and for a maximum of two years.
It is to be used alongside a reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity, Nice said.
Patients inject themselves weekly with the drug, which suppresses the appetite through mimicking the hormone glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) that is released after eating.
This makes people feel full, meaning they eat less and lose weight.
A previous study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that nausea and diarrhoea were the most common side effects but these were “typically transient and mild-to-moderate in severity and subsided with time”.
The drug will be available to NHS patients soon when the launch of the drug in England is confirmed by manufacturer Novo Nordisk.
Th NHS in England is required to implement the Nice recommendations within three months of the product becoming commercially available.
Helen Knight, director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said: “For some people losing weight is a real challenge which is why a medicine like semaglutide is a welcome option.
“It won’t be available to everyone. Our committee has made specific recommendations to ensure it remains value for money for the taxpayer, and it can only be used for a maximum of two years.
“We are pleased to finally publish our final guidance on semaglutide which will mean some people will be able to access this much talked about drug on the NHS.”
Commenting on the news, Alex Miras, professor of endocrinology at Ulster University, said: “This decision made by Nice is a pivotal moment for the treatment of people living with obesity.
“The weight loss that can be achieved with this safe medication is substantial and likely to lead to the improvement of obesity-related complications in a large number of patients.”
Prof Nick Finer, honorary clinical professor at the National Centre for Cardiovascular Prevention and Outcomes at UCL, added: “The efficacy of semaglutide is a true game changer for the medical treatment of obesity, a chronic disease that shortens life through its many complications.”
Dr Stephen Lawrence, associate clinical professor at the University of Warwick, added: “When used in accordance with the prescribed guidelines, it promotes weight loss in a safe and effective way for most people.
“It is important to note, however, that this medication is not a quick fix or a replacement for following a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular physical activity and healthy eating.
“It should therefore only be offered following assessment of the person taking the medication and as part of a programme to establish a healthy lifestyle.”
Dr Simon Cork, senior lecturer in physiology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “The news that semaglutide will be available on prescription for the treatment of obesity will be welcome news to the millions of people who struggle to lose weight and maintain that lower body weight.
“However, many will be disappointed by the strict rules dictating who will be eligible for this drug.”
Charity Beat raised concerns about the impact of the drug on people with eating disorders.
Tom Quinn, Beat’s director of external affairs, said: “Weight-loss medications like semaglutide can be extremely attractive to people with eating disorders as they appear to provide quick results.
“However, these medications can be very dangerous as they can worsen harmful thoughts and behaviours for those unwell, or contribute to an eating disorder developing for someone who is already vulnerable.”
In February it emerged that some high street chemists in England will prescribe the drug, if suitable, through their online doctor services.
A spokesperson for Novo Nordisk said: “Novo Nordisk welcomes the final Nice recommendation for Wegovy (once-weekly semaglutide 2.4mg), as an option for weight management within the NHS.
“We are working to make Wegovy available in the UK as soon as possible.”