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The WHO issued a global warning about fake semaglutide products amid an ongoing surge in demand for GLP-1 drugs for weight loss. Somchai um-im/Getty Images
  • GLP-1 receptor agonists are a class of drugs used to treat type 2 diabetes and are commonly prescribed for weight loss.
  • As demand for these medications surges, the WHO issued a global alert on counterfeit semaglutide products being sold online.
  • Authorities in several countries have warned that using fake Ozempic and other GLP-1 drugs for weight loss may lead to severe side effects and hospitalization.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert on June 19 warning of the risks of fake semaglutide.

Health officials worldwide are concerned over the growing number of online pharmacies selling counterfeit GLP-1 agonists like Ozempic and Wegovy.

This class of medications is used to treat type 2 diabetes (T2D), a chronic condition affecting more than 6% of people ages 15 years and older. GLP-1 agonists control blood glucose levels by stimulating insulin production, delaying stomach emptying, decreasing appetite, and inhibiting glucagon production, the hormone that increases blood sugar.

Most people treated with GLP-1 agonists lose weight, and significant weight loss of more than 15% of body mass can have a disease-modifying effect in people with type 2 diabetes. Currently, two prescription-only medications, semaglutide — sold as Wegovy in the United States and Ozempic in the United Kingdom — and liraglutide (sold as Saxenda in the U.K. and U.S.), have been licensed for weight management. In the U.S., Ozempic is widely prescribed off-label for weight loss.

Because of the surging demand for GLP-1 drugs as a weight-loss treatment, fake versions of the pre-filled injection pens have been discovered in many countries.

The WHO’s recent warning sheds light on the dangers of counterfeit GLP-1s, highlighting three falsified batches of Ozempic in particular. These were detected in Brazil, the U.K., and Northern Ireland in October 2023 and the U.S. in December 2023. Since 2022, the WHO Global Surveillance and Monitoring System (GSMS) has monitored increased reports of counterfeit semaglutide products globally.

“WHO advises healthcare professionals, regulatory authorities and the public be aware of these falsified batches of medicines,” said Dr Yukiko Nakatani, WHO Assistant Director-General for Access to Medicines and Health Products, in a news release. “We call on stakeholders to stop any usage of suspicious medicines and report to relevant authorities.”

Since January 2023, the U.K. MHRA has seized 369 potentially fake Ozempic pens and has received reports of fake Saxenda pens obtained by people in the U.K.

In the U.S., the FDA has been investigating reports of potentially counterfeit drug versions sold in pharmacies.

Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, told Medical News Today:

“Given the lack of knowledge among masses, the high demand, and people’s illusion that miraculous changes in their body structure and function can occur by consumption of these products, unscrupulous elements have found another opportunity to make profit.”

The manufacturer of Ozempic, Novo Nordisk, advised consumers to remain vigilant in checking the packaging and pen for their medication after discovering counterfeit products in a U.S. pharmacy.

“Medications purchased online or in-person from foreign or unlicensed sources may be misbranded, adulterated, counterfeit, contaminated, improperly stored and transported, ineffective, and/or unsafe,” Novo Nordisk warned in June 2023.

The U.K. MHRA outlined the potential dangers of counterfeit GLP-1 pens and warned consumers not to buy them, as they pose a danger to health. “Serious side effects reported of those hospitalised, including hypoglycaemic shock and coma, indicate that the pens may contain insulin rather than semaglutide,” the MHRA warned.

In October 2023, the BBC reported that in Austria, several people were treated in hospital for severe side effects, including low blood sugar and seizures, after using counterfeit pens.

“Criminal organizations have apparently taken advantage of the situation and are trying to profit from this situation in a criminal and dangerous way by counterfeiting the high-priced product in a way that poses a risk to health,” the Austrian Federal Office for Safety in Health Care (BASG) warned in December 2023.

Khubchandani noted the risk of getting counterfeit GLP-1 medication remains low for people who’ve consulted with a healthcare professional.

“Unscrupulous actors and producers of counterfeit medication often target individuals who want the product without consulting a healthcare professional or a legitimate prescription,” Khubchandani said.

In the U.S., Wegovy can be prescribed by a medical professional for people with obesity or overweight (BMI greater than 27) with a weight-related comorbid condition.

In the U.K., the Medicines and Healthcare Regulations Agency (MHRA) states that Saxenda can be prescribed for weight management alongside a diet and exercise program, but Ozempic is only prescribed as a treatment for those with type 2 diabetes.

Khubchandani said he is unsurprised that counterfeit products are hitting the market but warns that people must not be taken in by them.

“Irrespective of the attempts from law enforcement and regulatory agencies, I believe the onus lies on consumers to increase their awareness and consult healthcare professionals,” Khubchandani said.

“This is important because people have to know if they really need a product like Ozempic, is the healthcare professional in agreement, can the provider and consumer locate an authentic product, and how to avoid the counterfeit products,” he added.

“Unless the consumers play an active role, no matter what we do, counterfeit [V]iagra and Ozempic will continue to reach people. Also, the urge to bypass rules and regulations and acquire products without a prescription is never a good idea. You could be playing with fire by consuming such products without a prescription or without the advice from a healthcare professional.”

Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, professor of public health

Khubchandani said warning signs of counterfeit GLP-1s may include:

  • spelling mistakes on labels
  • different colors on boxes
  • missing National Drug Code number
  • poor quality labels
  • errors on dose counters and buttons

It may be tempting to buy weight-loss products on the internet or over-the-counter, particularly after all the publicity these drugs have had and the shortages in many countries. However, the risks may well be greater than the benefits.

There are many other ways to lose weight safely. Your healthcare team can advise on what methods are best suited for you.