UK plans $40m pilot of obesity drug Wegovy in primary care

Towfiqu barbhuiya

Novo Nordisk’s obesity drug isn’t even available in the UK yet, but the government has already launched a pilot programme that could see access to the drug expanded through GPs.

The two-year pilot has been backed with £40 million (around $50 million) in funding and is aimed at reducing the pressure on the NHS as a result of conditions associated with being overweight, cutting waiting lists, and – potentially at least – help people get back to work and reduce benefits spending.

In trials, Wegovy has been shown to help people lose around 15% of their body weight when combined with diet and exercise.

Wegovy (semaglutide) has already been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as a once-weekly injection for obesity, and recommended for NHS use by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – though only through specialist weight-loss services.

The government says that would limit use to around 35,000 people, whereas allowing primary care providers to prescribe it would make it an option for “tens of thousands more” people.

That’s a moot point at the moment, as Novo Nordisk hasn’t yet launched Wegovy in the UK as it struggles to build production capacity to meet massive demand worldwide, with sales of the drug more than tripling to $666 million in the first quarter of this year.

At last count, it was available in the US, Denmark, and Norway, and Novo Nordisk said it would reduce production of the lower starting doses of the drug, restricting new starts on therapy, so make sure it can meet the demands of people already being prescribed the drug.

The government noted in its announcement of the pilot that other drugs that work in a similar way to Wegovy are also in late-stage development, suggesting that it may consider including these in the pilot if they are authorised. Those include Eli Lilly’s once-weekly injectable Mounjaro (tirzepatide), as well as Novo Nordisk’s oral version of Wegovy, which both have phase 3 data showing efficacy.

“Pharmaceutical treatments offer a new way of helping people with obesity [achieve] a healthier weight and this new pilot will help determine if these medicines can be used safely and effectively in non-hospital settings,” said NHS medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis.

Obesity costs the NHS £6.5 billion a year, according to government figures, which also estimate that there were more than a million admissions to NHS hospitals in 2019/2020 in which obesity was a factor.

The pilot will concentrate on looking at how GPs can safely prescribe obesity drugs, and how the NHS can provide support “in the community or digitally.”

It isn’t the first time that the UK government has looked at broadening access to new drug therapies at scale, to tackle illnesses that take up a lot of NHS resources.

It previously forged an alliance with Novartis to run a 40,000 trial of twice-yearly cholesterol-lowering drug Leqvio (inclisiran) to prevent heart disease, along with an access agreement to accelerate uptake and other measures. In March, Novartis confirmed it was abandoning the UK-only study in favour of a global trial.

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