GLP-1 Drugs Spurs Counterfeit Concerns

Boom in GLP-1 Drug Usage

When GLP-1 drugs for diabetes and weight loss exploded onto the scene two years ago, patients scrambled to get their hands on them. GLP-1s, which include Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro, and Zepbound, are so popular that it didn’t take long for them to wind up in short supply. According to one recent survey conducted by KFF Health Tracking, as many as one in eight adults has now used a GLP-1.

Counterfeit Drugs on the Rise

The demand shows no signs of slowing down, and as a result, counterfeit GLP-1 drugs are becoming an increasingly bigger piece of the landscape—so big, in fact, that the World Health Organization (WHO) last week issued a warning to people to be wary of the fake versions. Alongside the warning, drug makers Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk have filed lawsuits against several entities to stop selling the counterfeits.

Unregulated Sources and Risks

Med Spas and Compounding Pharmacies

“As soon as these drugs hit the market, the demand was so high that pharmacies began running out of them,” says Dr. Supriya Rao of Integrated Gastroenterology Consultants in Boston. “So med spas and compounding pharmacies began filling that gap for patients.”

A compounding pharmacy creates medicines using base ingredients, rather than dispensing the name-brand medications like Ozempic and Wegovy. Med spas, many online sources, and compounding pharmacies do not fall under the umbrella of FDA regulation, so there are no safeguards on what a patient might receive from one of these sources. “Compounded medications are essentially ‘copies’ of available medications, but they do not have the same safety, quality, and effectiveness assurances as approved drugs since these compounded versions lack FDA approval,” explains Dr. Carolyn Jasik, chief medical officer for Omada Health.

Dangers of Counterfeit Drugs

Likewise, counterfeit drugs—like what you might find at a med spa or from an online source—are unregulated. “Counterfeit drugs, no matter what, are dangerous and can lead to serious health consequences,” says Jasik. “These medications can contain toxic doses, the wrong ingredients, or no active ingredients at all. In short, you’re paying for a drug that can either harm you or is doing nothing at all.”

Some of the risks you might face with an unregulated form of GLP-1 include nausea and diarrhea, irregular blood sugar levels, and infections at the site of injection, among others.

Cost and Accessibility Issues

Often, patients are drawn to these alternative sources not just because supply of the originals is short, but also because they can be prohibitively expensive.

“Semaglutide medications are valuable and effective, but we are currently caught in a moment where the supply chain and cost can make these drugs inaccessible to much of the broader public,” says Jasik. “It’s important to note that this is a large part of what drives the development of counterfeit drugs in the first place. As a medical provider, I’m sad that this lifesaving medication is so difficult to access and that it’s come to counterfeit drugs that take advantage of people’s desires and medical needs.”

Safety Measures for Consumers

Buy from State-Licensed Pharmacies Only

As tempting as it might be to go for the cheaper alternatives on the market—or simply just to get your hands on a GLP-1 drug—the experts recommend steering clear. “Consumers should purchase medications from state-licensed pharmacies or FDA-registered outsourcing facilities to minimize the risk of counterfeit products,” says Simona Dorf, PharmD, and clinical pharmacist at First Databank. “It’s essential to verify prescriptions from licensed health care providers and avoid drugs recommended by unverified online sources or social media influencers.”

Do Your Own Research

The FDA’s BeSafeRx website is a good source of credible information to educate yourself before hitting “buy.” The site warns against websites that pose as online pharmacies, and recommends consumers only buy prescription medicines from a state-licensed online pharmacy, plus offers a location tool to find one. Additionally, it recommends talking with your doctor about any meds you purchase online.

Check the Packaging and Labels

A sure sign that you’re dealing with a fake is misspellings on the label, or poor print quality. Give each label a good going over to make sure of its authenticity. Along with those red flags, others include a missing or added word to the drug’s name. You can also do a check on the serial numbers and lot numbers by checking the FDA’s website.

Avoid Compounding Pharmacies

Rao also reminds consumers that any medication you put in your body has the potential for side effects. Those risks only grow if you’re not purchasing them from trusted sources. “Compounding pharmacies can be a slippery slope,” she says. “Depending on who is sourcing the medication, who knows what you’re getting from one day to the next. Injecting a drug from an unknown source is risky.”

Long-Term Weight Loss Advice

There are also important steps to take with regard to weight loss, whether you are using a GLP-1 medication or not, said Jasik. These include consistent self-monitoring, like weigh-ins; maintaining a balanced diet; exercises to help build lean body mass; and lifestyle programming to create a structured approach.

Whether you choose to use a weight-loss medication or not, safety should be front and center to your approach. And if the medication is part of that, even more so. “It is crucial to cross-check such information with health care providers,” said Dorf. “Awareness of the risks associated with counterfeit GLP-1 drugs and taking proactive measures can significantly protect consumers. As demand for these medications continues to grow, vigilance from both consumers and regulatory bodies is essential to ensure safety and efficacy in treating diabetes and obesity.”