The medicines regulator has said scams include advertising offers being sent to GPs for distribution to patients.
A number of websites are currently under investigation for claims they are selling products containing semaglutide (sold as Ozempic) for the treatment of type 2 diabetes and off-label for weight loss.
In a statement issued by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) on 1 March, the regulator revealed that there are people who have been scammed online, with some failing to receive the products after paying for them in full. Others have reported receiving a product that is not in fact semaglutide.
The regulator also expressed concerns that those who have ordered and obtained semaglutide without a valid prescription from their doctor may be using a product that is unsuitable for them medically.
‘The TGA is aware of several scams targeting consumers seeking semaglutide during the current medicines shortage and is urging consumers to only obtain these products from an Australian pharmacy and when dispensed on a valid doctor’s prescription,’ the regulator urged.
A TGA spokesperson told newsGP while they do not have data on the number of people accessing the unlawful websites, the regulator has been responding to allegations of unlawful advertising of semaglutide since early 2022.
‘While we cannot comment on ongoing investigations that could result in compliance action, we are working with several digital platforms including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, eBay, Amazon and Gumtree among others,’ the spokesperson said.
‘The TGA has regular discussions with digital platforms and social media sites, including to advise them on the rules for advertising therapeutic goods and to help enhance their monitoring systems, which block users from posting unlawful content including for Ozempic.’
newsGP has been informed by the regulator that from 1 July 2022 – 2 March 2023, the TGA has requested the removal of almost 1000 advertisements of Ozempic appearing on digital platforms, including social media and websites.
Approved for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and prescribed off label for obesity, semaglutide has made headlines for being in short global supply, with Australian supplies affected since the beginning of 2022.
Last month, the TGA issued a statement announcing limited supplies of the drug had commenced distribution to select community pharmacies, with prescribers requested to prioritise people using the drug to manage diabetes.
Meanwhile, Nine Newspapers have revealed that one website selling the sought-after drug has stolen the identities of a number of current and retired health practitioners to help market the site and sell the drug.
Dr Gary Deed, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Diabetes, says the online scams demonstrate how far some people are willing to go to financially gain from the medicine’s shortage, at the expense of others, and cites the extensive media coverage.
‘It is unfortunate,’ he told newsGP.
‘There is a background that effective weight loss management options have been lacking up to now, [and] so many people, quite rightly, are seeking help.
‘But [this demand] also reflects an unrealistic view by some people on relying on single pathways or drugs to help manage overweight or obesity, rather than as a multidisciplinary approach.’
In Australia, advertising prescription medicines such as semaglutide is prohibited, with individuals facing penalties of almost $900,000 and corporations more than $4 million, in addition to possible jail time.
The TGA is strongly advising people not to use products unless they have come from a trusted source, noting that Novo Nordisk is the ‘only legitimate manufacturer of semaglutide’.
However, there are some alternative semaglutide products from various countries, including the UK and Germany, that have been approved for temporary supply in Australia, with a list available through the TGA’s section 19A approvals database.
While Australian-based pharmacies can sell prescription medicines online to consumers who have a valid prescription, the pharmacy will review the prescription before they dispense and send the medicines.
As part of its warning to the public, the regulator has highlighted some of the key features of websites illegally selling, or claiming to sell, semaglutide:
- the promise of the purchased product being delivered to a consumer’s home address
- that the product being purchased is authentic
- offers to compound semaglutide in a pharmacy
- advertising offers being distributed to GPs for distribution to their patients.
In its latest update, the TGA has confirmed that over the last week limited supplies of semaglutide have become available nationally and that they are expected to return to normal ‘over the coming weeks’.
While semaglutide is being prescribed off label for weight loss, the TGA has since registered Wegovy, which is also semaglutide, and indicated specifically for weight loss.
Once it is available for purchase in Australia, Dr Deed says he anticipates that it will ‘certainly assist’ in curbing some of the demand for Ozempic.
However, seeing the demand that has emerged for semaglutide for weight loss specifically, the Queensland-based GP believes Government also has a role to play in this space, by addressing and preventing obesity and overweight.
‘Possibly seek reassessment for obesity prevention though public health measures and address the increasing numbers of overweight and obese children,’ Dr Deed said.
Meanwhile, the TGA is on alert, with the regulator saying that it expects similar fraudulent advertisements for other diabetes and weight loss medicines. A spokesperson told newsGP they are already observing a smaller number of advertisements for Wegovy, duaglutide (sold as Trulicity) and tirzepatide (sold as Mounjaro).
‘The TGA are working with other regulators in relation to these scams,’ the regulator said in a statement. ‘We take appropriate action against non-compliant advertising where we can.’
Dr Deed says GPs have an important role to play in educating and updating their patients on the situation around semaglutide, as a source of ‘quality information on managing weight and guiding [patients] through the maze’.
The TGA is urging anyone who sees any semaglutide products being advertised unlawfully online to report it via the TGA website.
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diabetes medicines shortage obesity Ozempic semaglutide TGA weight loss
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