Menu Menu

The rapid development of ‘affordable’ weight loss drugs

India and China are poised to play a significant role in making weight-loss drugs more affordable and accessible, as pharmaceutical companies race to develop cheaper alternatives to Ozempic and Wegovy.

The use of weight-loss drugs otherwise known as GLP-1 drugs has seen an upward trend in recent years as obesity rates rise worldwide. Medications like Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro have increased in popularity, with Ozempic being the most commonly prescribed.

Though the drugs were initially developed to treat type 2 diabetes, researchers have found that their usage also contributes to substantial weight loss. Hence, it has prompted pharmaceutical companies to explore their potential as obesity treatments.

Despite the effectiveness of these drugs, they come with a high price tag, often costing patients thousands of dollars per year. The cost and limited insurance coverage have led to concerns about accessibility.

In response, India and China are reportedly developing cheaper versions of these medications to make them more accessible to a wider population.

The biosimilar market

Biosimilars are biological medical products that are, shock, highly similar to already FDA-approved ones. Several pharmaceutical companies in India and China are racing to create biosimilars and improved versions of these complex GLP-1 drugs to compete in the global market.

GLP-1 regulates blood sugar whilst binding to different body receptors that control appetite and slow digestion. Many of the current patents are set to expire within the next 10 years giving time for companies to develop biosimilar versions.

In India, companies like Glenmark, Biocon, and Sun Pharmaceuticals have already positioned themselves. Glenmark has launched a liraglutide biosimilar called Lirafit that costs 70% less than existing therapies. Biocon, meanwhile, is also developing semaglutide biosimilars to launch as soon as 2026.

In China, the drug administration has already approved two GLP-1 drugs produced by Chinese companies for weight loss – a liraglutide biosimilar called Liluping and beinaglutide, marketed as Feisumei.

Several other Chinese companies have launched late-stage trials for semaglutide biosimilars, with Hangzhou Jiuyuan Gene Engineering expected to be the first to enter the market once the semaglutide patent expires in two years.

The obesity epidemic

Since 1990, the obesity rate has doubled with 1 in 8 people suffering from the disease. In India, 70% of its urban population is overweight with a prevalence of 40.3%.

It was also seen that women were more susceptible compared to men across the nation. Similarly in China, nearly half the population is classified to suffer from obesity with rates doubling between 2004 and 2018, from 3.1% to 8.1%.

Hence, with the arrival of cheaper biosimilars, experts predict that it would be a ‘game change’ significantly increasing access to these effective weight loss drugs for the hundreds of millions of overweight and obese people in India and China. These versions of the weight-loss drugs are expected to be priced significantly lower than the original ones.

Moreover, the entry of multiple biosimilar competitors, as allowed by the loss of patent protections is predicted to drive severe price competition, further lowering production costs. Not to mention, that increased accessibility and affordability would allow more healthcare providers to prescribe these medications, giving patients suffering from obesity to counter-act their health risks.

In the long term, these biosimilar drugs may end up reducing the mortality rate associated with obesity-related complications.

Possible repercussions

Though the benefits seem almost direct, it does not come without potential setbacks. Easier access to these medications, if not properly regulated, could lead to overprescription by healthcare providers, even for patients who may not meet the clinical criteria for their use.

People will, inevitably, misuse or abuse these drugs for rapid weight loss if they become widely available and affordable. As a result, overuse of GLP-1 drugs may lead to issues ranging from severe nausea to abdominal pain. At its worst, it could even cause significant changes in blood salt levels and inflammation in the pancreas gland.

Additionally, these drugs require frequent usage over time to maintain the benefits of weight loss. If stopped, it may lead to rapid weight gain. With the rise of these drugs also comes the exacerbation of mental health concerns associated with social media and body image.

As biosimilar versions of these drugs roll out, it will be important to carefully evaluate their physiological effects to ensure they have a similar safety and tolerability profile to the reference products.

Given the cosmetic obsession with current treatments has yet to tail off, we could well be on a slippery slope to a new health epidemic.