Steve Barclay's enthusiasm for the diet injection is misplaced
Health Secretary Steve Barclay has a cunning plan: offering people weight loss injections on the NHS will get people back to work and, as a result, boost the economy. Barclay thinks there could be “significant” economic upsides to making drugs such as Wegovy available.
Wegovy is a brand for Semaglutide, an appetite suppressant used primarily to treat type 2 diabetes. Demand for the product soared after Elon Musk tweeted about his weight loss success with the jab. Since then, Wegovy manufacturer Danish pharmaceutical Novo Nordisk has been struggling to match extremely high levels of demand, with the company halting its much-anticipated international launch dates and further advertising in the last month.
Meanwhile, the UK government is rolling out a £40 million pilot that hopes to make Wegovy available to Britain’s increasingly overweight population following a single GP visit. The government’s theory is that easy access to weight loss injections will cut NHS waiting lists by “helping to tackle dangerous obesity-related health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer”. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it probably is.
Firstly, there are going to be major supply issues. Parent company Novo Nordisk predicts shortages of Wegovy for most of the year, meaning that NHS patients on the starter dose of Wegovy will likely have difficulties fulfilling their prescriptions from the get-go. Just last month, Novo announced that it already plans to ration the supply of starter doses for Wegovy in the U.S. by at least half.
If this pilot is a “success”, 10–12 million Brits will suddenly be eligible for an injection already being rationed in its primary market. The company has warned that “any launches including the UK (and elsewhere in Europe) will be based on the uptake in the U.S. and our gradual expansion of supply.” This doesn’t bode well for UK patients nor the government’s idea that prescribing Wegovy will cut down NHS waiting lists.
But more importantly, the Health Secretary’s idea that the population losing pounds in weight will straightforwardly add pounds to the economy is wrongheaded. Researchers across America, Canada, Denmark and Britain recently compared men to women and found that, although overweight women have lower salaries than thinner women, the same effect was not observable among men. “Rich women are much thinner than poor women but rich men are about as fat as poor men,” The Economist concluded. In the UK, there are many more obese men than women, yet women are more economically inactive than men. According to the ONS, the main reason for economic inactivity among women (and men) aged 25 – 49 are caring responsibilities. Many working age women can’t meet the costs of childcare if they go back to work. A Wegovy prescription isn’t going to change that.
The Government has said that the Wegovy pilot will only last two years. But a 2022 study suggests that treating a condition like obesity with such a short-term course solves nothing. In the study, two-thirds of patients regained all prior weight lost one year after their withdrawal from semaglutide injections. If it is serious, the NHS would have to offer long-term, perhaps even life-long, prescriptions of a drug whose long-term health effects are not yet understood and whose potential customer base numbers in the millions.
It is understandable that punters flock to the latest weight-lost fad — this has been going on for decades. But you’d expect governments to be a bit more circumspect. The only long-term fixes for obesity are diet and lifestyle, and if would be reassuring if the Health Secretary knew that.