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Ozempic's weight loss side effect can make it harder to find for people with diabetes

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Ozempic has been all over the news lately. The prescription drug was created by Novo Nordisk to help diabetes patients control their blood sugar, but the side effect of rapid weight loss has made the drug a very hot commodity, and that could be a problem, as NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith reports.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Five years ago, ShantaQuilette Develle Carter-Williams (ph) had a health crisis. She had a stroke at age 39 and lost the use of her left side.

SHANTAQUILETTE DEVELLE CARTER-WILLIAMS: I was a little immobile.

VANEK SMITH: Carter-Williams is a stand-up comedian, writer and producer in LA, and she couldn't work at all after her stroke. It hurt to move.

CARTER-WILLIAMS: So I was eating and, you know, gaining weight. And I was just really concerned about if I do continue to keep this weight on, the possibilities of having another stroke are very high.

VANEK SMITH: Her doctors suggested she tried (ph) Ozempic to help bring down her blood sugar and avoid another stroke.

CARTER-WILLIAMS: I'd never heard of Ozempic, but sure. You know, I'm willing to try anything at this point.

VANEK SMITH: Ozempic is a weekly shot you give yourself. It causes the body to produce insulin, which lowers blood sugar, slows digestion and makes people feel full. Carter-Williams tried it and was amazed.

CARTER-WILLIAMS: You're not hungry. Like, I actually have to set times now to be like, OK - to make sure that I do eat.

VANEK SMITH: Whoa. I mean, you just, like, forget to eat?

CARTER-WILLIAMS: Yeah, you forget. You actually forget to eat.

VANEK SMITH: Carter-Williams' weight started to drop right away. Her cholesterol and blood sugar levels started coming down. But almost as soon as she started seeing results, she ran into trouble.

CARTER-WILLIAMS: I was going to renew my dosage, and they were like, oh, we don't have it.

VANEK SMITH: Carter-Williams started calling everywhere, but the only pharmacy she could find that had any Ozempic in stock wouldn't take her insurance. So instead of costing her $25 a month, it was going to cost $1,600 a month. That was when Carter-Williams realized Ozempic was having a major moment. TikTok, Facebook, Instagram - they are full of Ozempic testimonials. Elon Musk tweeted that he's on a version of the drug. Comedian Chelsea Handler said on a podcast that everybody in Hollywood is using it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHELSEA HANDLER: Well, so my doctor, my anti-aging doctor, just hands it out to anybody, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh.

HANDLER: And obviously, now I can't say her name.

VANEK SMITH: The FDA has approved Ozempic for diabetes patients, but the dramatic weight loss it causes has people all over the world clamoring to get it.

JORGE RODRIGUEZ: When I first heard about Ozempic, it was actually from a patient of mine.

VANEK SMITH: Dr. Jorge Rodriguez is a gastroenterologist in LA. He says ever since that first moment, he's been getting asked to write prescriptions for Ozempic all the time. It is legal for doctors to prescribe a drug like Ozempic for an unofficial use, but Rodriguez sees Ozempic's popularity as a problem, especially since it can be really hard to find in a lot of places, and insurance often won't cover it, meaning only people who can afford to pay $1,600 a month can get it. Another drug called Wegovy - that has the same active ingredient - is FDA approved for weight loss. Both medications have been in short supply.

RODRIGUEZ: Using it in any other way restricts and harms the people that really benefit from it, which are the diabetics.

VANEK SMITH: Also, because the weight reportedly comes right back if you don't take Ozempic every week, people are willing to pay exorbitant prices and go to extremes to get their hands on it, like going to Canada and Mexico. And no surprise, all of this demand for Ozempic has sparked a whole new crop of businesses.

RODRIGUEZ: It's created these sort of new clinics and enterprises that are asking people for a lot of money to be able to get it.

VANEK SMITH: A raft of telehealth companies have cropped up that offer pricey monthly subscriptions to weight loss services, which include access to Ozempic or a similar drug. One such service, Sequence, charges subscribers about $100 a month, and it was just purchased by Weight Watchers for more than $100 million, a sign that the weight-loss industry is also getting in on the Ozempic game. Dr. Rodriguez says there is also potentially a health issue here. After all, Ozempic is a pretty new drug. The known side effects - such as extreme nausea, dehydration, headaches - might not be the whole story. He points to fen-phen, a wildly popular weight-loss drug from the '90s.

RODRIGUEZ: Almost everybody was on fen-phen, and one of the phens is basically methamphetamine...

VANEK SMITH: (Gasps).

RODRIGUEZ: ...Right? - which is speed.

VANEK SMITH: Still, Rodriguez says, for diabetic patients, Ozempic is truly a very promising drug. Shantaquilette Develle Carter-Williams did eventually manage to lock down a reliable supply covered by insurance, and she says she saw what all the fuss was about.

CARTER-WILLIAMS: I've already lost, now, 62 pounds.

VANEK SMITH: You've lost 60 pounds in six months?

CARTER-WILLIAMS: Yes, ma'am.

VANEK SMITH: Wow.

CARTER-WILLIAMS: And my body is operating differently. My blood pressure is better (laughter), you know, so it is really life changing. And I wasn't a person that looked in the mirror and was like, oh, I'm overweight; I don't like how I look. No, girl, I got confidence. I like myself at any weight (laughter). For me, it was hell.

VANEK SMITH: Carter-Williams says people have noticed her weight loss and often ask her what her secret is, and when she tells them it's Ozempic...

CARTER-WILLIAMS: They're like, oh, my God. I've been trying to get that.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

CARTER-WILLIAMS: You know, can you tell me how you got it?

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.