Britain will explore wider access to diet drugs in a two-year pilot project

The UK government will launch a pilot program to explore how new injectable weight-loss drugs like Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy can be given to more obese patients outside specialist services in hospitals, it said on Wednesday (7 June).

The $40 million ($50 million) pilot program comes after national drug efficacy watchdog NICE in March recommended the weekly injection be used in adults with at least one weight-related condition and an index of body mass of 35, but only within the National Health Service’s (NHS) specialist weight management programme.

The timing of Wegovy’s launch in Britain – which would be only the fourth country to use it – is uncertain, however, after Novo rationed initial doses last month to ensure supplies to US patients already on the regimen after being overwhelmed by the question there.

British Prime Minister Sunak said on Wednesday that the pilot project for new drugs to lose weight and fight obesity-related diseases would ease the pressure on hospitals.

It would also “support people to live healthier and longer lives and help realize my priority to reduce NHS waiting lists”.

The NHS has endured a tough winter in England in particular, with waiting lists reaching record levels and staff demanding higher pay due to double-digit inflation.

Obesity is a leading cause of serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, costing the NHS £6.5 billion a year.

The government said NICE, short for National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, was also considering the NHS’s potential use of Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro, also known as tyrzepatide, which is currently licensed for the treatment of diabetes but which it should also get approval for the treatment of obesity.

The two-year pilot project will look at how general practitioners could safely prescribe medicines and how the NHS could provide support in the community or digitally, he said.

Novo’s limitations on Wegovy adoption in the US effectively delayed the launch in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Even in the US, the rollout only began in earnest earlier this year after it took Novo months to overcome production issues at a contract manufacturer.

A company spokesman declined to comment on any commitments to supply the British driver with its drug.

“Novo Nordisk is aware of the government’s ambition to not only retain but also bring people back into the workforce, as part of this there have been preliminary discussions on the role of obesity treatment to support this ambition,” he said.

The UK government said just 35,000 people would have access to Wegovy with specialist hospital services, but tens of thousands more may be eligible.

A keen interest in the treatment is already showing up elsewhere.

One of Britain’s largest drug chains, Superdrug, told Reuters in April that its Superdrug Online Doctor remote prescribing service expected significant demand from Wegovy.

“Superdrug Online Doctor has seen enrollment levels five times ahead,” a spokesperson told Reuters at the time. He declined to give numbers.

Outside the US, Wegovy has only launched in Denmark and Norway, but major medical insurance plans won’t pay for it, saying the health benefits wouldn’t justify the extra budget.

Britain’s move is likely to ignite a debate over whether a drug is the right answer to the growing public health problem of obesity or whether other ways to encourage healthier lifestyles should be prioritised.

Duane Mellor, a dietician and lecturer at Aston University medical school, told Reuters that drugs like Wegovy are a tool, not the solution.

“It is a political decision to say that the government is doing something about obesity-related health problems… we need to be much braver and bolder in examining the root causes of access to healthcare and to make the healthy food”.

Wegovy works by mimicking a hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) that triggers feelings of fullness in the body after eating.

Clinical trials have shown that it leads to an average weight loss of about 15%, along with changes to diet and exercise.

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