Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant known for insulin and other diabetes drugs, made waves this week with the launch of a new direct-to-consumer telehealth platform called LillyDirect. The service aims to increase access to Lilly’s recently approved weight loss medications Mounjaro and Zepbound while also allowing patients to consult virtually with doctors and receive other Lilly medications for migraine and diabetes.
The move comes as demand surges for weight loss drugs like Mounjaro, driven in part by viral social media attention. However, Lilly faces controversy over fears the drugs may be overprescribed or used inappropriately.
Mounjaro and Zepbound Lead Wave of New Obesity Medications
Mounjaro (tirzepatide) and Zepbound (cenicriviroc) are a new class of weight loss drugs that work by mimicking the effects of GLP-1 and GIP, hormones that regulate appetite and blood sugar.
In clinical trials, both drugs led to significant weight loss in patients with obesity or overweight with at least one weight-related health problem. For example, patients taking the highest tested dose of Mounjaro lost an average of 22.5% of their body weight over 72 weeks.
|Average Weight Loss in Trials
|Alongside diet & exercise for chronic weight management in adults with obesity or overweight
|Up to 22.5% over 72 weeks
|Treatment of obesity or overweight in adults with at least one weight-related condition
|Up to 18.1% over 68 weeks
These impressive results, along with celebrity endorsements and viral TikTok and YouTube videos, have created skyrocketing consumer demand.
LillyDirect Aims to Increase Access Amid Rising Demand
Many doctors remain hesitant to prescribe weight loss medications, and shortages have occurred as more patients seek prescriptions. This led Lilly to launch LillyDirect to connect patients with telehealth providers willing to prescribe Mounjaro, Zepbound and other Lilly medications.
Patients complete an online questionnaire about their health history. An assigned provider then reviews their case and may offer a prescription to be filled and mailed by a Lilly-contracted pharmacy.
“We understand more people are discussing these medicines on social media, and there is increased consumer interest in them,” said Mike Mason, president of Lilly Diabetes. “However, these prescription medications are not right for everyone and should be appropriately prescribed.”
During the launch, Lilly’s share price rose over 5%, signalling investor optimism about the new platform.
However, weight loss drugmaker WW International, formerly Weight Watchers, saw shares plunge 12% on fears of rising competition.
Backlash Over Fears of Overprescription
While intended to responsibly expand access, LillyDirect has stoked fears that it could enable overprescription of medications with serious potential side effects.
Obesity specialist Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford expressed worries that telehealth makes it easier to skip recommended psychological evaluations, dietician referrals and lab work.
“There is no replacement for having your provider evaluate you from head to toe before initiating what could be life-altering medications,” she said.
Eating disorder specialists also caution that those with a history of disordered eating could misuse weight loss medications in dangerous ways. Some have called for policy reforms around telehealth prescribing of such drugs.
Future Outlook: Caution Against Cosmetic Use and Off-Label Prescribing
In an open letter released alongside the LillyDirect launch, Lilly asserted that Mounjaro and Zepbound should be used only for medical weight loss in appropriately screened patients, not for cosmetic reasons.
The company warned it is unable to ensure medicines obtained from unauthorized sources are safe and effective. Reports already surface of counterfeit products and off-label use of diabetes drugs like Ozempic for weight loss.
Analysts expect scrutiny around telehealth prescribing of weight loss drugs to ramp up, especially if adverse events increase. However, LillyDirect could pioneer a new model for pharma direct-to-consumer services – if the company can responsibly expand access without enabling overuse.
Bloomberg News. Weightwatchers Sinks as Lilly Launches Weight-Loss Drug Delivery https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-04/weightwatchers-sinks-as-lilly-launches-weight-loss-drug-delivery
Mason, Mike. Open Letter Regarding the Use of Mounjaro (tirzepatide) and Zepbound (cenicriviroc) https://investor.lilly.com/news-releases/news-release-details/open-letter-regarding-use-mounjaror-tirzepatide-and-zepboundtm
NBC News. Weight loss drug online? New website from Eli Lilly draws praise, criticism https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/weight-loss-drug-online-website-eli-lilly-rcna131597
Sharma, Amir. Why WW International Stock Just Dropped 12% https://www.fool.com/investing/2024/01/04/why-ww-international-stock-just-dropped-11/
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