2023: The Year Ozempic Took Over the World, for Better or Worse

The Conquest of the PhilosopherIn the New Yorker, Dhruv Khullar calls 2023 “the year of Ozempic.” Then in Vox, Constance Grady puts it right up there with Barbie, calling this “the year of Ozempic bodies and Barbie Botox.” The New York Times puts it at the very top of five health lessons we learned in 2023. Most notably, Science magazine named GLP-1 agonists for obesity as “the breakthrough of the year.” Progress on Alzheimer’s? A malaria vaccine? Those were also-rans.

In 2023, Ozempic captured the world’s attention like few prescription drugs ever have. For better and for worse.

Substantial Progress

The great part of this focus on a year of incredible attention to advanced medicine for obesity is the substantial progress it represents. This is progress on many fronts. Science magazine describes it well:

“Drug treatments for obesity have a sorry past, one often intertwined with social pressure to lose weight and the widespread belief that excess weight reflects weak willpower. From ‘rainbow diet pills’ packed with amphetamines and diuretics that were marketed to women beginning in the 1940s, to the 1990s rise and fall of fen-phen, which triggered catastrophic heart and lung conditions, history is beset by failures to find safe, successful weight loss drugs.

“But now, a new class of therapies is breaking the mold, and there’s a groundswell of hope that they may dent rates of obesity and interlinked chronic diseases.”

So we had great progress in the quality of the options that people living with obesity have for managing this chronic disease. We also had great progress in the public understanding that this is not a cosmetic condition. Nor is it a condition of choice. It is a real medical condition that responds well to medical care.

And success breeds success. This disease is now attracting serious research attention that will bring even more options into play. More options mean more competition, better outcomes, lower prices, and more access to care.

Problems Keeping Up

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, people cannot keep up with all this progress all at once. To name the most obvious problem keeping up, we have Novo Nordisk failing to provide an adequate supply. Sad, but true.

Then there’s the misleading public discourse that titillates more than it informs. Equating obesity treatment with Barbie Botox, as Vox did, would be a prime example. But hardly an outlier. Public discourse is messy and even with more well-informed discourse, flaky misinformation comes along for the ride.

And then finally, there’s the problem that healthcare systems can’t keep up with unmet medical need. There are still too few skilled providers. Health plans and systems more often prevent care than provide it.

Under the Banner of Ozempic

You will note that this was not the year of Wegovy – the brand that Novo Nordisk tried in vain to set up as a separate and unequal segment of the semaglutide business. That marketing ploy fell flat. Only one brand name for semaglutide lodged in our brains. The public did not accept the second one – even though the official labeling for obesity and the maximum doses are only available under the Wegovy brand.

Semaglutide is semaglutide. This is why 2023 is the year of Ozempic, not Wegovy.

Click here, here, here, and here for more perspective on how this remarkable drug defined 2023 in so many ways.

The Conquest of the Philosopher, painting by Giorgio de Chirico / WikiArt

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December 26, 2023