UK Launches Pilot to Improve Access to Obesity Drugs

The United Kingdom launched a £40 million ($50.44 million) pilot to expand access to obesity drugs, including Wegovy.

A two-year pilot is aimed at making the newest and most effective obesity drugs more accessible to patients outside of hospital settings. This would help to cut waiting lists by reducing the number of people who suffer from weight-related illnesses.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends the use of semaglutide under the brand name of Wegovy for adults with a body mass index (BMI) of at least 35 and one weight-related health condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

However, Wegovy would only be available via specialist weight management services, primarily based in hospitals. This means only 35,000 people would have access to the drug, which can help people lose up to 15% of body weight in one year when combined with diet, physical activity, and behavioral support.

The pilot will look at how GPs could safely prescribe the newest obesity drugs and how the National Health Service (NHS) can provide support in the community or digitally.

Obesity is one of the leading causes of severe illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. People with such conditions tend to need more support from the NHS and could end up needing surgeries linked to their weight, like hip replacement or gallstone removal. Obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £6.5 billion ($8.1 billion) a year.

"Using the latest drugs to support people to lose weight will be a game-changer by helping to tackle dangerous obesity-related health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer – reducing pressure on hospitals, supporting people to live healthier and longer lives, and helping to deliver on my priority to cut NHS waiting lists," says the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The COVID-19 disruptions in the UK healthcare system resulted in record waiting lines. In March, about 7.4 million people, including cancer patients, were waiting to start hospital treatment in England alone, with an average waiting time of 13.8 weeks.

As Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of Wegovy, struggles to meet surging demand for the drug in the United States, it postponed the drug’s launch in the UK, initially planned for 2022. The company announced in May halving the supply of starting doses of Wegovy to ensure adequate supply for existing patients.

The FDA approved Wegovy for treating obesity in patients with a BMI greater than 30. The drug can also be prescribed to overweight patients with BMI lower than 27 if they have health conditions related to being overweight.

With about 100,000 prescriptions written each month, Wegovy became the second most prescribed weight loss medication in the U.S. within the first four months after entering the market.

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