The popular obesity drug Wegovy cuts the risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke, by 20%, drugmaker Novo Nordisk said Tuesday.
The findings are the first to demonstrate that a weight-loss drug has medical benefits beyond weight reduction.
Novo Nordisk hasn't yet released the full trial results, but the study may be compelling enough to get insurance companies to provide coverage for the expensive medication, said Dr. Shauna Levy, a specialist in obesity medicine and the medical director of the Tulane Bariatric Center in New Orleans.
Many people who take Wegovy have had trouble getting insurance to cover the weekly injections, which cost more than $1,300 for a month's supply, because the medication hasn't been considered medically necessary.
“Twenty percent is huge,” Levy said. “All of this narrative about people just wanting this for cosmetic reasons, I think, to some degree, has overshadowed all of the health benefits we can get from this medication.”
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. The evidence that Wegovy can reduce heart risks along with weight loss may change some views that it's a vanity drug, said Dr. Holly Lofton, the director of the weight management program at NYU Langone Health and an investigator in the Novo Nordisk trial.
"Because of stigma regarding weight, it's not well-received," Lofton said.
The findings were based on a late-stage clinical trial of more than 17,000 adults ages 45 and up who got a 2.4-milligram dose of Wegovy or a placebo in addition to standard care.
The individuals had overweight or obesity, as well as existing cardiovascular disease, but no previous history of diabetes.
Novo Nordisk said the drug appeared to be safe and well tolerated, in line with what has been seen in previous clinical trials.
The results were announced in a news release and have not yet been reviewed by outside scientists. The company didn't say how much weight the participants lost. It's also unclear whether the cardiovascular benefits were a result of the weight loss or some other mechanism in the drug.
Novo Nordisk said it plans to provide more details about the trial on its earnings call Thursday.
Novo Nordisk has struggled to keep up with demand for Wegovy as well as Ozempic, a Type 2 diabetes medication that has been prescribed off-label for weight loss. Wegovy and Ozempic contain the same active ingredient, semaglutide.
Nearly half of adults in the U.S. have obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition is a risk factor for a number of diseases, including heart attack, stroke, sleep apnea, liver disease and cancer.
Drug companies have been conducting clinical trials to show that the medications are capable of reducing the risk of weight-related conditions.
“This is only the beginning,” Levy said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg to show the health benefits of these medications.”
Even so, it's not a given that insurers will now pay for Wegovy. A spokesperson for AHIP, an insurance industry trade group, declined to say.
It’s “impossible to evaluate the efficacy and long-term effectiveness of a prescription drug based solely on a drug manufacturer’s press release,” AHIP's David Allen said in a statement.
Weight loss from the drug could potentially provide benefits comparable to those of bariatric surgery, which has been shown to reduce the risk of death from cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other diseases, Levy said.
Still, Wegovy and similar drugs in its class called GLP-1 agonists may not be for everyone, Lofton noted. There can be serious side effects, including abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Wegovy has also been linked to pancreatitis.
The company said it plans to ask the Food and Drug Administration to add cardiovascular benefits to Wegovy’s drug prescription label later this year.