Ozempic Is About to Be Old News
All of a sudden, Ozempic is everywhere. The weight-loss drug that it contains, semaglutide, is a potent treatment for obesity, and Hollywood and TikTok celebrities have turned it into a sensation. In just a few months, the medication has been branded as “revolutionary” and “game-changing,” with the power to permanently alter society’s conceptions of fatness and thinness. Certainly, a drug like semaglutide could be all of those things: Never in the history of medicine has one so safely led to such dramatic weight loss in so many people.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As weight-loss medications go, Ozempic is far from perfect. Though the drug has profound impacts, it requires weekly injections, a tolerance for uncomfortable side effects, and the stamina—not to mention the budget—for long-term treatment. (Ozempic has somehow become a catchall term for semaglutide but technically that product has gotten FDA sign-off only as a diabetes medication. A larger dose of semaglutide, marketed as Wegovy, has been approved for weight loss.)
Made by the Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk, semaglutide dominates the U.S. weight-loss market right now, but its reign might be short-lived. The colossal demand for these drugs has spurred a competition in the pharmaceutical industry to develop even more potent and powerful medications. The first of them could become available as soon as this summer. For all its hype, semaglutide is the stepping stone and not the final destination of a new class of obesity drugs. Just how good they get, and how quickly, will go a long way in determining whether this pharmaceutical revolution actually meets its full promise.
In a sense, semaglutide hardly represents a major step forward in science. Diet drugs are nothing new, and even the category of pharmaceuticals that these new products belong to, called “GLP-1 agonists,” has been around for several years. These drugs mimic the hormone GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide one) and bind to its receptor in the body. This triggers a sense of fullness associated with having just eaten, and also slows the release of food from the stomach. (It also increases insulin secretion, keeping blood sugar in check, which is why Ozempic is still intended as a diabetes drug.) Already, these pharmaceuticals have gotten better over time: A daily injection called liraglutide and sold as Saxenda, which was approved by the FDA in 2014 for obesity, leads to the loss of 5 to 10 percent of a person’s body weight in most cases. But one reason semaglutide took off in a way that liraglutide didn’t is that it can lead to weight loss of up to 20 percent. “Now you have a shot that’s once a week instead of every day, you’re making dramatic improvements, and people notice more,” Angela Fitch, the president of the Obesity Medicine Association and the chief medical officer of the obesity-care start-up Knownwell, told me.
But not everyone who takes these drugs can achieve that level of weight loss. More than 60 percent of those on Wegovy experience smaller changes, in part because the drug can’t account for the complex drivers of obesity that aren’t related to food. The next generation of drugs is reaching for more. The first leap forward is Mounjaro, known generically as tirzepatide, a diabetes drug from Eli Lilly that the FDA is expected to approve for weight loss this year. In one study, it led to 20 percent or more weight loss in up to 57 percent of people who took the highest dose; The Wall Street Journal recently called it the “King Kong” of weight-loss drugs. People on Mounjaro tend to lose more weight more quickly and generally have a “better experience” than those on Wegovy, Keith Tapper, a biotech analyst at BMO Capital Markets, told me. It’s also cheaper, though by no means cheap, at roughly $980 for the highest-dose option, he said; a dose of Wegovy costs about $1,350.
These leaps in potency are happening on the molecular level. Like semaglutide, Mounjaro mimics the effects of GLP-1, but it also hits receptors for another hormone—GIP. That leads to even more weight loss by further attenuating focus on food and potentially also increasing the activity of a fat-burning enzyme, said Tapper. So-called dual-agonist drugs “offer a step change” in both weight loss and blood-sugar control, he added.
And why stop at two receptors when so many others are involved in regulating hunger? “This area is exploding in terms of research and testing different combinations of hormones,” which are still poorly understood, Shauna Levy, a professor specializing in bariatric surgery at Tulane University School of Medicine, told me. Eli Lilly has another drug in the works that targets three receptors; one from the drugmaker Amgen works by “putting the brakes” on the GIP receptor and “putting the gas” on GLP-1’s, a company spokesperson told me. Several other companies have already joined what some have dubbed a “race” to develop the next great obesity drug, in which Lilly, Pfizer, Amgen, Structure Therapeutics, and Viking Therapeutics are expected to be the front-runners, said Tapper.
The potency of weight-less drugs is not the only factor that will determine the shape of their future trajectory. Wegovy and Mounjaro injections are tolerable for most people, but they are less convenient than a pill. Making oral versions of these drugs isn’t as easy as packing everything into a capsule, though. Semaglutide is a molecule that gets chewed up in the stomach. For this reason, the semaglutide pill Rybelsus, which is already approved for diabetes, leads to far less dramatic weight loss than its injectable kin. But drugmakers are undeterred by this complication, because a pill even more powerful than semaglutide would no doubt have many customers. In January, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla said that an oral weight-loss drug “unlocks the market,” which he estimated could eventually be worth $90 billion. Pfizer doesn’t have any weight-loss drugs yet but is developing a twice-daily GLP-1 agonist pill; Eli Lilly also has an oral version in the works. Tapper expects those drugs to become available in 2026, and a similar offering from Structure Therapeutics is likely to follow the next year.
Drugmakers will also likely vie to create drugs with fewer side effects. Novo Nordisk notes that gastrointestinal issues are common with semaglutide; accounts of horrible nausea, constipation, and vomiting have proliferated online. As one actor put it to New York Magazine, people on Ozempic are “shitting their brains out.” With Wegovy, more serious issues, such as pancreatitis, thyroid cancer, and kidney failure, are also possible but are considered rare. Although nothing to scoff at, side effects tend to subside with prolonged treatment and can usually be managed with help from a doctor, said both Fitch and Levy, who regularly prescribe semaglutide to patients with obesity. It’s possible, Levy added, that people experiencing really terrible effects may be getting their drugs from shady compounding pharmacies or even from other countries.
The fact that people are turning to sketchy outlets to get weight-loss drugs underscores the biggest issue with them: access. Medicare and most private insurance companies don’t cover anti-obesity drugs. (Such drugs are classified as “cosmetic” by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and thus don’t qualify for coverage.) “I am hopeful that the price will come down with more competition,” Fitch told me. But there’s no guarantee that will happen: Competition typically makes a product cheaper over time, but research suggests that isn’t always the case in pharmaceuticals. Even if the drugs do become cheaper, they may not become cheap enough. The oral forms of these drugs, some of which could be available by 2026, are expected to cost about $500 a month, Tapper said. By 2030, the cost of obesity drugs could come down to about $350 a month, according to a recent Morgan Stanley analysis, which would still be out of reach for many Americans.
Levy estimates that the next five years will bring about a “huge explosion” of next-gen obesity drugs. In that case, the market will likely expand to accommodate a variety of drugs with different price points and efficacies. Some people may aim to lose 20 or more percent of their body weight; some may be content with less. The market is so diverse that it will likely “support a broad range of options,” said Tapper, such as cheaper, lower-dose oral drugs for people who have milder medical issues, and more expensive injectables for those with more severe medical concerns. That opens up the possibility that medically mediated weight loss could soon be an option for a far greater proportion of people.
Regardless of how much these drugs’ costs may decrease, they will always add up if people are paying out of pocket for them. They are meant to be taken long term: Once a person stops taking Wegovy, the weight tends to come right back. The current crop of weight-loss medications are essentially maintenance drugs, much like the cholesterol-busting drug Lipitor, which is taken daily to treat long-term disease. But Lipitor, unlike obesity drugs, is generally covered by insurance. Unless obesity drugs receive the same kind of coverage, no level of improvement will lead them to deliver on what Ozempic is promising us now.