WHO issues global alert over ‘deadly’ Ozempic counterfeits

Ozempic is a brand name for semaglutide, a new generation of weight-loss injections that suppress appetite
Ozempic is a brand name for semaglutide, a new generation of weight-loss injections that suppress appetite - DAVID J PHILLIP/AP

The World Health Organisation has issued a safety alert over potentially deadly batches of fake Ozempic circulating in the UK.

Patients and doctors have been urged to be vigilant for any counterfeit products, which have entered the “regulated supply chain” – meaning they may have been dispensed by the NHS.

Three fake batches of Ozempic were detected in the UK and Brazil last October and in the United States in December.

The drugs, including the specific brand product that has been falsified, are licensed for the treatment of type two diabetes and sometimes prescribed “off-label” for weight loss.

Supply has been unable to keep up with the global demand for the drug.

Health officials have been monitoring reports of fake weight-loss injections since 2022, but this is the first time a global warning has been issued.

The WHO said that the drugs were being “supplied in the regulated supply chain” – meaning it has been provided by legitimate clinics or doctors, and may affect NHS patients.

The WHO called for “diligence by national regulators” on batches of Ozempic and other weight-loss injections, and said people should inspect the packaging carefully and look for signs such as spelling errors.

Made by Novo Nordisk, the Danish company, Ozempic is the brand name for semaglutide.

Semaglutide is the first in a new generation of weight-loss injections known as GLP-1 agonists, which work by suppressing the appetite. In branded versions, Ozempic is used on the NHS for patients with type 2 diabetes, with Wegovy prescribed for severely obese patients.

Harmful effects

The counterfeit drugs could have harmful effects on people’s health and if the products don’t have the necessary raw components, falsified medicines can lead to health complications, the agency warned.

The WHO also urged patients to buy prescriptions only from licensed pharmacies, amid concerns about the circulation of fake medicines on the black market.

Novo Nordisk confirmed the three batches in circulation were fake.

The company said: “The use of falsified Ozempic may result in the ineffective treatment of patients due to incorrect dosage, contamination with harmful substances, or use of unknown or substituted ingredients,” and that its administration by subcutaneous injection could be life-threatening.

Dr Yukiko Nakatani, the assistant director-general for essential medicines and health Products at WHO, said: “WHO advises healthcare professionals, regulatory authorities and the public to be aware of these falsified batches of medicines.

“We call on stakeholders to stop any usage of suspicious medicines and report to relevant authorities”.

Growing concerns

The global alert comes amid growing concerns about the weight-loss market, in particular for those vulnerable to eating disorders.

Last week, senior medics warned that A&E units were now treating casualties of the injections on a daily basis.

They said slim girls were putting themselves at deadly risk by lying about their weight to obtain the injections from online pharmacies.

The jabs are only licensed for those with a BMI of at least 30, the threshold for obesity, or 27, for those with certain health conditions.

NHS chiefs have urged pharmacies to stop selling weight loss injections online without seeing patients, after warnings that prescriptions are being issued to those of healthy weight.

Prof Sir Stephen Powis, the national medical director of NHS England, made the intervention after warning that the jabs should not be used as a “quick fix for people trying to get ‘beach body ready’”.

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