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Supporters of Weight Loss Drug Received Funding from Drug Maker, Report Claims

Pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk gave millions to obesity charities and healthcare professionals to boost the profile of its weight loss drug semaglutide (Wegovy), the Observer newspaper alleged. Some of the experts who supported the drug are being accused of not being transparent about receiving funding from the drug maker.

The drug was recommended on 8 March by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as an option for weight management, including weight loss and weight maintenance in some obese and overweight adults, alongside a reduced calorie diet and increased physical activity.

The Observer report stated that Novo Nordisk, which has its headquarters in Denmark, paid £21.7 million to health organisations and professionals over 3 years in what it termed an "orchestrated PR campaign" to boost the drug firm's influence in the UK. 

The money was divided into more than 3500 payments between 2019 and 2021, with obesity charities among organisations receiving the largest share, according to the report. NHS trusts, Royal Colleges, GP practices, healthcare education providers, and universities also received funding from the firm, the Observer said, citing an analysis of pharmaceutical industry disclosure logs.

Investigators behind the report stressed that there was no suggestion that payments broke any rules. They further stated that funding recipients had said they were not influenced by money received and that interests had been properly declared.

Experts Who Praised the Drug Had Links to Novo

During an interview on BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme last week, Professor Jason Halford praised semaglutide as "one of the most powerful pharmaceutical tools" to date for treating obesity. However, listeners were probably unaware that in addition to his academic work as head of the School of Psychology at the University of Leeds, Prof Halford is also president of the European Association for the Study of Obesity, which the Observer said received more than £3.65 million from Novo Nordisk between 2019 and 2021. The report claimed that this funding was not mentioned in the charity's accounts. 

Prof Halford also lists collaboration with several pharmaceutical companies, including Novo Nordisk, in developing novel treatments for obesity or mitigating drug induced weight gain. 

The report also named Professor Nick Finer, an expert medical consultant in obesity medicine, and endocrinology, who described semaglutide as "a true game changer" in comments to the Science Media Centre (SMC) on 8 March, following the decision by NICE to approve the drug for routine NHS use in England. Prof Finer's affiliations were updated by the SMC on 10 March and made clear that he had been an employee of Novo Nordisk until July last year.

Another scientist, Professor John Wilding, from the University of Liverpool, who gave evidence to NICE during its deliberations on semaglutide, is a former president of the World Obesity Federation, which the Observer article said was paid more than £4.3m by Novo between 2019 and 2021 – funding that reportedly did not show up in the charity's accounts.

Call for Stricter Controls

The article quoted Simon Capewell, emeritus professor at the Institute of Population Health, Liverpool University, as saying that the payments by Novo Nordisk were designed to "buy influence and favourable opinion" and called for "much stricter controls on such payments".

Novo Nordisk was publicly reprimanded in December 2022 for sponsoring free weight management courses on LinkedIn in breach of code of practice of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Medscape News UK has approached Novo Nordisk for comment on the Observer's story. The firm told the newspaper that it had never "deliberately acted" outside ethical or legal standards.