Semaglutide, a prescription drug — sold under the brand names Ozempic and Wegovy — which is used to lower blood sugar levels in adults with type 2 diabetes, has infiltrated the Chinese weight loss market. Users have been claiming that the injections have the “magical ability” to help people shed four to five pounds in a month.
The drug is broadly used for chronic weight management in obese and overweight adults in the U.S. In China however, semaglutide is only approved for those with type 2 diabetes.
But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to get their hands on the medication.
According to a WeChat blog about China’s pharmaceutical industry, semaglutide is being sold in underground markets and through word of mouth. Young girls have reportedly swarmed the endocrinology and metabolism departments at top-tier hospitals in Shanghai, claiming to have diabetes to obtain the injections.
Last summer, doctors at these hospitals prescribed just over 100 doses of semaglutide, the blog says. Now, that number has risen to roughly 1500-2000 doses. From April 2021 to October 2021, sales of semaglutide reached 322 million yuan –– more than $46 million.
The medication is seen as an “online celebrity medical beauty product,” Tan Zhuozhao, the author of the WeChat blog wrote. “No one cares about its side effects –– and no one cares whether they are paying at their own expense or using medical insurance. Everyone cares about its so-called miraculous weight loss effect.”
The number of social media posts mentioning semaglutide or Wegovy has increased since the end of January –– peaking in mid-March this year, according to data from Chinese market research and analysis company Baiguan.
Similarly aggregated consumer data from Chinese sites also shows that the overall demand for weight loss products peaked in January, though it is unclear what specific products are being sold.
Semaglutide was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017, but started gaining traction across social media platforms last year as a popular weight loss method. Now, the FDA has listed both Ozempic and Wegovy as two of dozens of medications in short supply due to a combination of “incredible demand” and “overall global supply constraints.”
In September last year, Variety reported that celebrities were “singing the drug’s praises” on Signal. Elon Musk, CEO of Twitter, has openly credited the drug for his “fit, ripped, and healthy” appearance. On TikTok, the hashtag #Ozempic has been viewed more than 845 million times.