The hype surrounding Ozempic reached a fever pitch earlier this year, but it’s still not clear when the drug will arrive in New Zealand.

Commonly known by brand name Ozempic (also sold as Wegovy and Rybelsus), Semaglutide was first developed in 2012, and is used to treat unmanaged type 2 diabetes.

So popular is its infamy that the medication is now in shortage globally, with Kiwi diabetics having to compete for access with people in Australia and the US, who have fallen into a social media infatuation with Ozempic as a slimming drug.

In March, New Zealand’s medical regulatory body Medsafe gave approval for injectable forms of the drug, made by Danish drug company Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals.

But – as 2023 nears its close – Ozempic is still unavailable in New Zealand. So what’s the latest with the year’s most controversial, much-hyped injectable?

What does Ozempic’s manufacturer have to say?

Pharmac has approved the use of Ozempic in New Zealand, but the pharmaceutical company that makes the drug has not clarified when it will arrive on NZ shores.

In a statement to Stuff, Novo Nordisk said: “Novo Nordisk welcomes Medsafe’s approval of Ozempic (semaglutide) in New Zealand.

“Novo Nordisk is exploring options to provide access to Ozempic (semaglutide) for people living with type 2 diabetes in New Zealand.”

There has been a worldwide shortage, and Novo Nordisk had a statement on their website advising there would be significant delays.

How much will it cost?

Similarly, it remains uncertain whether Pharmac will fund the drug in New Zealand (which costs around NZD$184 to $370 per weekly dose in Australia).

Pharmac’s pharmaceuticals director Geraldine MacGibbon told The Waikato Times, “Pharmac does not fund semaglutide, brand names for Ozempic and Wegovy, and does not currently fund any medications specifically for weight loss”.

Who is Ozempic for?

The NZ Society for the Study of Diabetes has said drugs like Ozempic must be made available for New Zealanders, as they say the condition currently costs the health sector $2.1 billion a year.

Ministry of Health figures show in 2020 there were 277,803 people with diabetes in Aotearoa, with 47,988 in Counties Manukau alone.

Why has it been so slow to grant approval of Ozempic in the first place?

Approval for the drug has been slow, prompting criticism of Medsafe’s approval process and evaluation targets for new drugs, especially when the medication has long since been available in the UK, US, Canada, and Australia.

In the US, the FDA granted approval for the drug initially in December 2017 – but six years later, Kiwis are still unable to access the same drug.

The Post reported that Novo Nordisk did not file for New Zealand approval until December 2021, when Ozempic had already been on the US market for four years.

What is the controversy surrounding the drug?

The diabetes drug, which works as an appetite suppressant and off-label weight-loss tool, has raised concerns from obesity groups about its harmful side effects and glorification of diet culture.

A rise of fellow ‘quick fix’ weight loss alternatives, such as the supplement Berberine, has followed in the wake of Ozempic’s rise.

Ozempic’s uptake by celebrities sparked a viral awareness of the drug – pitched to Americans with a high-profile ‘Oh-Oh-Ozempic’ ad campaign.

But Professor Rhiannon Braund, President of the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand, expressed hopes that medical professionals will use their discretion when it comes to prescribing the drug for any off-label weight-loss usage.

“The problem with this medicine is that there is legitimate usage of it. I’d like to believe that prescribers and pharmacists are pretty honest,’ Prof Braund told Stuff. “The second you go off that script you have to be really, really careful – if anything goes wrong, you have to take the responsibility for that.”

A Ministry of Health spokesperson told Stuff “Ozempic has been approved by Medsafe to treat adults with insufficiently controlled type 2 diabetes. While Ozempic has not been approved for other uses, it can be prescribed if an authorised prescriber thinks a patient requires it.

“Manatū Hauora recommends that you consult the healthcare team at your general practice before starting any weight management medications.”

97% of dieters regain weight, and critics of Ozempic have raised alarm around the idea of “curing” fatness.

Has Ozempic been a success overseas?

The drug might not be available in New Zealand yet, but global Ozempic sales have helped fatten the manufacturer company, Novo Nordisk’s, stock.

In September, the Danish pharmaceutical company became, for a time, Europe’s most valuable company – having seen its share price rise to DKK$1310.80 (NZ$320.76).

In the same week, Novo Nordisk’s market value reached US$424.7 billion, stealing the crown from luxury fashion goods group LVMH, according to Reuters.

The weight loss industry is booming – but it remains to be seen how the drug will take the New Zealand market by storm.