The number of people plagued by thoughts of suicide or self-harm while taking a popular weight-loss jab has quadrupled in the past two months, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
The drug, sold as Ozempic or Wegovy, treats diabetes but has been shown in studies to be highly effective at tackling obesity.
In June, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak labelled the medicine ‘a game-changer’ and announced a pilot scheme that would allow GPs to offer the weekly injection to obese patients.
However, in July health authorities announced a review of the medicine, which contains the active ingredient semaglutide, among other similar weight-loss drugs, after reports of patients experiencing suicidal thoughts.
The number of people plagued by thoughts of suicide or self-harm while taking a popular weight-loss jab has quadrupled in the past two months, The Mail on Sunday can reveal
Drugs such as Ozempic or Wegovy, contain semaglutide, which regulators fear could have an unexpected side effect
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said the review was initiated after it received five reports of semaglutide patients who had suicidal or self-harming thoughts after taking the drug.
It had also received 12 reports since 2010 of these side effects in patients taking a similar drug called liraglutide.
Now the MHRA has revealed that the number of reports of patients with suicidal or self-harming thoughts has soared in just two months to 23. It has also received a further six reports relating to liraglutide.
Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration has received 265 reports of suicidal thoughts or behaviour in patients taking this type of weight-loss drug since 2010 – 36 of which describe a death by suicide or suspected suicide.
The MHRA did not disclose how many deaths or suspected deaths there had been in the UK.
Experts argue the potential link between taking these drugs and suicidal thoughts is likely due to the underlying mental health issues which lead many people to becoming obese.
‘This rise in reports of suicidal or self-harming thoughts comes as no surprise,’ says Prof David Strain, a diabetes expert at University of Exeter Medical School.
‘These drugs suppress the desire to eat, meaning you’re taking away the pleasure obese patients relied on to stave off their depression. It’s logical that, when you do that, you’re going to see previously repressed suicidal thoughts bubbling up.’
Semaglutide is part of a class of drugs known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, the first of which were developed a decade ago as a treatment for type 2 diabetes. These drugs mimic the GLP-1 hormone in the gut that helps with the release of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. But scientists also found they suppressed appetite, leading to weight loss. In studies, semaglutide consistently showed obese patients lost about ten per cent of their weight and kept it off while they continued on the drug.
Semaglutide has been offered in the UK to help diabetics since 2019. While NHS spending regulators approved it as a weight-loss treatment in March, it has not yet been rolled out for this purpose due to supply issues caused by the massive hype around the drug since its use among celebrities and models became widely known.
Experts worry the rise in patients experiencing suicidal thoughts may be linked to the surge in people buying the drugs online without a seeing a doctor.
‘Semaglutide is really effective, but you can’t entirely solve obesity by throwing drugs at it,’ says Prof Strain. ‘Obesity patients need psychological support. Online companies can’t offer that.’
Trials suggest the drug is safe, although side effects of stomach pains and nausea have been often reported.
A spokesman for Novo Nordisk, the Danish developer of Wegovy, said its ‘large clinical trial programmes’ and surveillance of the drug since its rollout had ‘not demonstrated a causal association between semaglutide and suicidal and self-harming thoughts’.