‘Counterfeit’ Ozempic Is Under Investigation As at Least 3 Users Are Hospitalized

Updated: Nov. 10, 2023

Authorities and Ozempic's manufacturer have a warning for consumers, just as another diabetes drug—projected to be the best-selling medication of all time—has been approved for weight loss.

These days, thanks to pop culture conversation, it’s likely that you’ve heard the name “Ozempic” even if you’re not one of the estimated 40 million Americans managing diabetes. Wegovy is another drug that’s been effective for type 2 diabetics and most recently for weight loss patients after its 2021 approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Demand for each has been so high that some diabetic patients have been forced to opt for alternative products or lesser dosages.

A third brand, Mounjaro, features a different active ingredient called tirzepatide and was initially approved for treating type 2 diabetes. This past week Mounjaro was also approved for weight loss in obese individuals under a different name, Zepbound, and with a different concentration. NBC News reported on projections that Zepbound could potentially become the best-selling drug ever, given its reported effectiveness.

Zepbound, like Ozempic and Wegovy, is a weekly self-administered pen injector drug in a similar delivery method as EpiPen. Zepbound is not expected to be covered by insurance for most people and is anticipated to cost over $1,000 for a month’s supply, making it prohibitively expensive for most people. While its effectiveness is impressive with overweight individuals losing around 18% to over 22% of their body weight depending on the trial, obtaining it might be challenging. Also, like semaglutide drugs, Zepbound can cause side effects or long-term health problems and could be susceptible to counterfeiting.

The news about Zepbound’s approval comes during a week of unsettling developments regarding these popular medications. According to CBS, the FDA is currently investigating several hospitalizations that have been linked to counterfeit semaglutide injectors, and there have been reports of injuries and even deaths allegedly caused by these drugs even when used as prescribed.

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In June 2023, Novo Nordisk, which manufactures Ozempic and Wegovy, released a statement indicating that counterfeit injector pens had been discovered. These counterfeit pens were available for purchase online and closely resembled the authentic versions. Novo Nordisk warned, “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.”

This week, reports surfaced that three Americans were hospitalized due to the effects of counterfeit Ozempic drugs amid several reports of injuries to the FDA. In the UK, authorities confiscated several hundred fake pens just last month.

To complicate matters further, compounding pharmacies are permitted to sell off-brand semaglutide pens during shortages. The FDA cautions that these pens are not regulated in the same way as approved brand-name drugs and may be associated with adverse effects beyond those already known with these popular drugs, making it even more important that a healthcare professional is involved in treatment.

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While the specific issues people experienced with these counterfeit versions of weight-loss injectors are not known, it’s important to note that even the brand-manufactured drugs already come with potentially dangerous side effects that need to be monitored and evaluated by a healthcare provider. In addition to common issues like gastrointestinal problems, users may experience serious problems such as pancreatitis, allergic reactions, and even kidney failure. In October, the FDA added intestinal blockage as another possible serious side effect of taking Ozempic and Wegovy. There have also been reports of suicidal thoughts linked to these popular drugs. In statements to Reuters, both Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, the maker of Mounjaro and Zepbound, expressed their commitment to taking these reports seriously and investigating them.

While the use of these weight-lowering drugs can be crucial for some people in the treatment of obesity that doesn’t respond to diet and lifestyle changes, it’s important to work with a healthcare provider in their administration and buy from reputable sources. Obtaining counterfeit drugs online or from other sources could be dangerous and potentially deadly. The FDA states that to avoid counterfeits people should only purchase medication from licensed pharmacies.