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B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix speaks during an announcement about the expansion of a program that assists internationally educated doctors in obtaining a licence to practice in the province, in Richmond, B.C., on Nov. 27.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s Health Ministry is investigating why U.S. citizens are filling nearly 10 per cent of prescriptions in the province for a diabetes drug that has also been in demand as a weight loss treatment partly because of publicity on social media.

Demand for Ozempic has driven shortages of the medicine for diabetic people in the United States. A formulation of the same drug approved for weight loss remains unavailable in Canada, prompting some patients to use Ozempic off-label.

Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters at a news conference in Vancouver on Thursday that 83,188 prescriptions for Ozempic were filled across the province in the year ending Aug. 31, with Americans filling 22 times as many doses of this drug as they typically do of other pharmaceuticals. The average proportion for other medication is 0.4 per cent.

“So there has been a dramatic increase in demand, partly because of, let’s just call them, influencers who have spoken about the drug for weight loss,” said Mr. Dix, who noted at the event that he lives with Type 1 diabetes. “I’ve asked our PharmaCare teams to review that to ensure we are protecting British Columbians and protecting Canadians with respect to access to these drugs.”

Mr. Dix announced expanded coverage for Ozempic and another drug for diabetic patients, as well as two other drugs used for unrelated conditions.

The Globe and Mail reported last summer that the drug has become wildly popular in Canada for people wanting to lose weight. An analysis last August by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, an independent organization that advises governments on drug policy, found that, in some provinces, 36 per cent to 74 per cent of non-public drug plan claims for Ozempic (prescriptions paid for through private or federal drug plans or out of pocket) were from people who likely did not have Type 2 diabetes.

Spending on Ozempic in Canada increased to $227-million in 2021 from $13.5-million in 2019, according to the study.

U.S. outlets reported last month that the drug’s popularity among people flaunting their transformative weight loss on social media platforms – TikTok, for example, has more than 380 million videos tagging Ozempic – has driven shortages of the medicine for diabetic people in the United States.

Danish multinational Novo Nordisk manufactures Ozempic but also produces Wegovy, the same medication generically called semaglutide but in a different dose that is specifically marketed for the treatment of obesity. Wegovy was approved by Health Canada in November, 2021, but the company told The Globe last year that its “unprecedented demand” in the U.S. has led to shortages.

On Thursday, Novo Nordisk spokesperson Amy Snow said Wegovy is still unavailable in Canada. “We don’t yet have a date yet for availability,” she said.

Mr. Dix said his province has worked closely with drug manufacturers to ensure B.C. has enough supply of Ozempic and the other three drugs for which he announced expanded coverage on Thursday.

The Globe asked Mr. Dix whether Wegovy’s unavailability is pushing many people to seek out Ozempic to lose weight. He did not answer the question, but said the clinical evidence backing Wegovy was not recently reviewed by his ministry and that the drug remains uncovered by B.C. PharmaCare.

Still, he said, so far B.C. has not had any shortages of the drug, which is injected to help lower blood glucose levels.

To ensure that Type 2 diabetes patients maintain access to Ozempic, Mr. Dix announced expanded provincial coverage for the drug to more people, as long as they meet the government’s specific criteria such as lower household incomes. Those wanting the drug must also first fail to control their blood sugar levels with another pharmaceutical, metformin, before their doctor can request coverage for Ozempic.

Before Thursday, they had to try two other drugs to secure a prescription, Mr. Dix’s ministry stated in a news release.

“We have a rigorous system to ensure … those people have access to the drug,” he said.

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