scorecardA 'game-changer' weight-loss drug was approved in 2021. Demand was so high that there were shortages within months.
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A 'game-changer' weight-loss drug was approved in 2021. Demand was so high that there were shortages within months.

Gabby Landsverk   

A 'game-changer' weight-loss drug was approved in 2021. Demand was so high that there were shortages within months.
LifeScience3 min read
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images
  • Semaglutide, a weight-loss drug, showed promise for treating obesity in recent research.
  • Demand quickly exceeded supply after the FDA in June approved once-weekly semaglutide injections.

2021 was a historic year for obesity treatment. In June, the Food and Drug Administration approved the weight-loss drug semaglutide, which some experts described as a "game-changer."

The medication, initially developed to treat Type 2 diabetes, was the first drug treatment to be approved by the FDA for weight management since 2014. Wegovy, the brand of semaglutide sold by Novo Nordisk, is a once-weekly injection designed to balance out hunger hormones. It's prescribed for people with a body mass index of 30 or more, or a BMI of 27 with related conditions such as diabetes.

Semaglutide was widely praised, prompting such high demand that there were shortages within months of Wegovy's entrance into the market.

While questions remain about its long-term effects, the drug made a splash in healthcare this year, changing how experts and the public think about weight loss.

Research suggested that semaglutide helped people lose significant weight, as long as they were taking it

Semaglutide works by increasing the production of insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar.

Research published in early 2021 found that people taking the drug lost 15% to 20% of their body weight over 68 weeks, compared with 2.4% for people taking a placebo.

To keep the weight off, people need to continue taking semaglutide. In another study, people who took semaglutide lost 10% of their body weight in 20 weeks, but those who stopped taking it regained weight in the weeks after ending the treatment. The people in the study group who kept taking the drug went on to lose another 8% of their body weight.

The 'miracle drug' gained traction thanks to the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen

Semaglutide's study results led to plenty of hype for obesity treatment. But it got a public-relations boost from Marc Andreessen, who called semaglutide a "silver bullet" and "miracle drug" for suppressing appetite.

Andreessen said on an episode of the podcast "Lindy Talk" in March that he had been taking Rybelsus, a brand-name tablet version of semaglutide from Novo Nordisk, for about 40 days.

"It just completely changes your relationship with food," he said. "You're just not hungry."

High demand for the medication helped lead to shortages

In late 2021, Novo Nordisk announced that it was unable to manufacture enough semaglutide to fill some prescriptions.

The company has said shortages will likely continue until the second half of 2022.

The unprecedented demand is in part because more people than ever are interested in weight-loss medication, said Ted Kyle, an obesity healthcare professional.

On his blog, ConscienHealth, Kyle included a slide from a Novo Nordisk investor presentation indicating that more than 70% of Wegovy prescriptions were for people who had never taken medication for obesity.

Some experts have expressed concern about long-term effects

Not everyone this year was a fan of semaglutide. Some health experts (and some influencers) cautioned that we don't understand how the drug may work in the long term or what side effects might occur.

"I get really concerned about a medication in which the method of action is putting the pancreas into overdrive," Rachael Hartley, a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating, previously told Insider.

The celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels also spoke out against the drug, arguing that weight loss with diet and exercise is "not hard to do" and is preferable for health.

Hartley said the semaglutide hype fit into a pattern of healthcare providers pathologizing people with larger bodies rather than prioritizing people's health regardless of their size.

"There's an assumption that if you're higher weight, you're doing something wrong, and frankly that's not true," she said. "Body diversity naturally exists."