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Novo Says 'No, No' to Copycat Companies Making Ozempic

Ozempic drug for diabetes
By A.J. Firstman and Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

If modern medicine has a Holy Grail, the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk may have found it. No, unfortunately not a cure for cancer or diabetes or Alzheimer's — but something maybe just as lucrative. It's called Ozempic, and it's a pretty effective weight loss drug.

A Weight Loss Gold Rush

According to recent studies, roughly two out of three American adults are overweight or obese, with the rest of the world catching up at a worrying pace. No one wants to be obese; if they did, the American weight loss industry wouldn't be expected to hit about $159.69 billion by the end of 2023 and $305.30 billion by 2030. There's just one problem: losing weight is hard.

There are a million reasons obesity rates have more than doubled in the last four decades (including the amount of added sugars Americans consume daily), and solving them all at a societal and individual level doesn't seem likely. We're headed toward a future where most of the world is much heavier than anyone wants — or at least we were.

The drug semaglutide, also sold under the name Ozempic, Wegovy, and Rybelsus, first received FDA approval in 2017 as a treatment for adults with type 2 diabetes. The drug seemed to work well for its intended purpose. Still, its ability to enhance glycemic control in patients was quickly overshadowed. Patients who received regular injections started to lose weight. A lot of weight.

Novo Nordisk's website lists Wegovy for $1,349.02 per package, putting it out of reach for millions who could most use its weight loss effects. Despite that price point, the supply of Wegovy and Ozempic can barely begin to keep up with the drug demand—in other words, it's a gold mine. But there's one problem with discovering a gold mine: you attract a rush of people wanting to make a quick buck the same way.

Copycat 'Compounding Pharmacies'

All too soon, other companies found a (legal) loophole that let them piggyback off of Novo's success.

A recent warning issued by the FDA highlights the problem of "compounding pharmacies" creating their own unauthorized and unregulated versions of Ozempic and Wegovy. Compounding pharmacies can make Ozempic and Wegovy in house because they're in short supply. But they can only do so if they use approved ingredients. (Spoiler: They didn't, and they probably still don't.)

The compounding pharmacies used unapproved and potentially unsafe ingredients. Even worse, the clinics and medical spas in the lawsuits purchased and resold the drugs using Novo Nordisk's trademarks. As a result, Novo Nordisk faces threats to its sales and reputation, and so the company has the legal right to tell the counterfeiters to cut it out immediately.

According to a press release from Novo Nordisk, it has filed suit against certain medical spas, weight loss or wellness clinics, and compounding pharmacies. It's asking them to "cease and desist from false advertising, trademark infringement and/or unlawful sales of non-FDA approved compounded products claiming to contain semaglutide." Why is Novo upset?

The sales angle is obvious enough. If people buy knockoffs from other places instead of the "real thing," Novo Nordisk loses out on those sales. And what kind of heartless monster do you have to be to take money from the cavernous pockets of an international pharmaceutical giant? If you didn't catch that sarcasm: we don't often report stories that are sympathetic to Big Pharma—but in this particular case, what hurts Novo is also hurting consumers.

The reputational problem is also fairly simple. Novo Nordisk can't have other people slapping their names on knockoff products. Knockoff Ozempic and Wegovy may contain the wrong dosage of semaglutide, or none at all. The knockoffs could be unsafe or even actively harmful, and patients aren't necessarily going to know the difference between the fakes and the real thing if they both sport Novo Nordisk logos.

The reputational issue is one that Novo Nordisk wants to manage before negative patient experiences start to muddy the waters and besmirch the pharmaceutical giant's good name. At the moment, it seems like the issue is at a manageable number of pharmacies and facilities. But if Novo Nordisk doesn't clamp down on the counterfeiters now, there's no telling how big the problem could become. After all, it only takes one viral complaint to poison the well among otherwise likely patients.

It's early days for the Novo Nordisk lawsuits, though it's hard to imagine the courts ruling in favor of counterfeiters and false advertisers. The real question is whether Novo Nordisk can scale up production quickly enough to make counterfeiting the drugs a less attractive and easy alternative to just buying the right ingredients in the first place.

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