What we know about the weight loss drug Ozempic

Ozempic, a brand name of the drug semaglutide, has acheived viral status over its weight-loss effects, but how much do we know about the medicaiton?

Ozempic Insulin injection pen for diabetics and weight loss.
Ozempic injections have soared in popularity in recent years. (Alamy)

Weight loss jabs including Ozempic could reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes among obese people by a fifth, regardless of how much weight they lose, a new study has shown.

The findings suggest taking these injections could have health benefits beyond reducing unhealthy body fat, researchers said.

Ozempic is the brand name for the diabetes medication called semaglutide. Current guidance in the UK says Ozempic should only be prescribed for the treatment of type 2 diabetes to protect supply for diabetes patients. It should not be prescribed solely for weight loss.

A team led by Professor John Deanfield, of University College London (UCL), used data from the Select trial, which was conducted by Novo Nordisk, manufacturer of the drug Ozempic. It has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The five-year study explored whether the medication – sold under the brand names Wegovy, Ozempic and Rybelsus – could reduce the risk of heart attacks or stroke in obese people without diabetes.

After 20 weeks of being on semaglutide, 62% of patients had lost more than 5% of their body weight compared with 10% in the placebo group.

However, the risk reduction of heart attacks, stroke or heart failure was similar in patients who lost more than 5% of their body weight and in those who lost less than 5%, or gained weight.

This, Professor Deanfield said, suggests the drug "has other actions which lower cardiovascular risk beyond reducing unhealthy body fat".

It isn't the first time Ozempic has made it into the news, with a number of celebrities swearing by the drug. But how safe is it, and how much do we know about it? Here, Yahoo News explains.

Semaglutide, the drug contained in Ozempic jabs, was first developed in 2012 and first approved for use in 2017 in the US and 2019 in the UK.

It is used as a type 2 diabetes treatment – prescribed to manage blood glucose levels. Diabetes patients who use the drug have reported losing weight.

This is partly due to reduced appetite and slowing down the movement of food in the gut, meaning users stay full for longer, Diabetes UK says.

This side-effect has become a selling point of its own, causing the drug to become viral among social media influencers and celebrities. In 2023, Harvard Health Medical School warned there was a shortage of the drug in the US because "too many people without diabetes are taking it".

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MAY 6: Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla and SpaceX and owner of X Holdings Corp., speaks at the Milken Institute's Global Conference at the Beverly Hilton Hotel,on May 6, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. The 27th annual global conference explores various topics, from the rise of generative AI to electric vehicle trends and features participants, soccer star David Beckham and actor Ashton Kutcher. (Photo by Apu Gomes/Getty Images)
Elon Musk has credited his recent slim-down to 'fasting' and 'Wegovy' - another brand name of semaglutide. (Getty Images)

Due to a growing shortage in Britain, the UK government banned the use of Ozempic for weight loss in July 2023.

However, semaglutide, the same drug, was approved for weight loss under the brand name "Wegovy".

The UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has approved semaglutide for both weight loss and diabetes treatment, meaning it is considered safe, but, like every medication, is not without its risks.

According to NICE, common side effects include diarrhoea, fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, vomiting, alopecia, diabetic retinopathy (in patients with type 2 diabetes), dizziness and headaches.

Rare side effects include angioedema (where part of the body suddenly becomes swollen) and acute pancreatitis. Data from the US Food and Drug Administration has also linked the drug to gallbladder disease.

The longer-term effects of Ozempic are still unknown, as it hasn't been around for long enough.

Concerns have also been raised over the risk of semaglutide causing thyroid cancer, but the research on this is unclear.

Ozempic warns of "possible thyroid tumours, including cancer" on its website, but despite the disclaimer, it goes on to say: "It is not known if Ozempic® will cause thyroid tumours or a type of thyroid cancer called medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) in people".

A French study compared people who did and didn't take semaglutide and found higher rates of thyroid cancer among those who did, particularly after one to three years.

However, another study carried out in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, published in the British Medical Journal, found no significant increase in risk – meaning the picture is very mixed.

Woman making self injection with injection pen closeup. Medicine and treatment concept
Like any medication, Ozempic is not without its side-effects. (Alamy)

On the latest trial looking at reduced risk of heart failure, CEO of medical non-profit Protas, Professor Sir Martin Landray says the study "opens up the question" over whether the drug can be used for preventative purposes - potentially "reducing the risk of not just cardiovascular events but many other diseases in people who are overweight or obese".

It's worth bearing in mind that the trial was run by Novo Nordisk, and that its findings are still yet to be peer reviewed.

It is also not clear when the global shortage in semaglutide products, including Ozempic, will end.

There are still "intermittent supply and shortages of some GLP-1 analogues including Ozempic", Diabetes UK says, some of which are expected to run into 2025, but there is now "good supply of Rybelsus (oral semaglutide) and Mounjaro (tirzepatide)".

In January 2024 the Reuters news agency reported that three people who'd sought medical treatment for dangerously low blood sugar in the US had taken what was suspected to be fake versions of Ozempic.

Austrian and Lebanese health authorities last year reported that several people had suffered bouts of hypoglycaemia after taking suspected fake Ozempic, some of whom were hospitalised.

The UK issued a similar warning in October 2023, with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) reporting a "very small number of people who have been hospitalised after using potentially fake pens".

At the time, the agency's chief safety officer Dr Alison Cave said: "Products purchased in this way do not meet our strict quality and safety standards, and taking such medicines may put your health at significant risk.

“We are advising all members of the public not to use any pre-filled weight loss pens they may have bought online and instead to report it to us so that we can investigate and take any necessary action."

Dr Cave urged anyone who suspects they've experienced side effects from taking a counterfeit product to file a report via the MHRA's Yellow Card scheme.