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Zepbound shortage: Eli Lilly’s weight loss drug remains in tight supply

Patients struggling to get their hands on the hard-to-find weight-loss shot Zepbound have a solution for drugmaker Eli Lilly & Co.: Release the vials.

Patients, doctors and pharmacists across the US are struggling to get their hands on Eli Lilly & Co.'s powerful new obesity drug Zepbound, as demand for the weight-loss shot soars(Bloomberg)
Patients, doctors and pharmacists across the US are struggling to get their hands on Eli Lilly & Co.’s powerful new obesity drug Zepbound, as demand for the weight-loss shot soars(Bloomberg)

Zepbound isn’t in short supply because there’s a lack of medicine — but rather the pre-filled pens that patients use to inject the right dose of the drug. Making that device requires “some of the most complex” production systems “on the planet,” Lilly Chief Executive Officer David Ricks said in an interview with Bloomberg News last August.

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But there’s another way to administer the drug: Lilly could ditch the pen and sell Zepbound in vials. That would require patients to fill a syringe on their own, but ease the drugmaker’s production woes. Lilly is already turning to vials outside the US, and increasingly popular compounded versions of the drug also come packaged that way.

“They have that ripcord they could pull here to alleviate the shortages,” said Dave Knapp, an Iowa-based medical sales professional, who takes Mounjaro, Lilly’s diabetes drug that contains the same active ingredient as Zepbound and has also gone in and out of supply. Last week Knapp started a social media campaign to get Lilly to #ReleasetheVials as complaints about Zepbound shortages mounted. “But there needs to be a little pressure to do it.”

Knapp has more than 26,000 followers on TikTok, where he posts about weight-loss drug news. The 38-year-old said hundreds, if not thousands, of patients come to him daily asking for updates about the shortages.

The US Food and Drug Administration approved single-use vials for Zepbound late last month. Lilly is “evaluating various options” to ensure Zepbound supply, a spokesperson told Bloomberg. The spokesperson declined to say whether the drugmaker is planning to roll out vials in the US anytime soon.

Weight-loss drugs have gone in and out of supply over the last few years as they’ve swelled in popularity. Lilly executives have said the company likely wouldn’t be able to meet the need this year for its new obesity shot. Production delays at both Lilly and Novo Nordisk A/S have raised questions about whether two of the most valuable drug companies in the world can keep up with the demand for the drugs fueling their skyrocketing valuations.

Patients say they’re not only frustrated with the intermittent supply, but the lack of communication about the issues. Lilly needs to “tell us what the problem is,” said Christine Miller, 49, who has been trying to get her Zepbound prescription filled in Massachusetts since early March. “I don’t want to live my life wondering if next month I’m going to have it.” Last week, Lilly acknowledged that some patients may experience delays. The FDA doesn’t yet consider Zepbound in shortage.

Both Lilly and Novo are investing billions to ramp up production but catching up will likely take years, experts say. The company has to build out the manufacturing capabilities because of the complexity, said Dave Powell, vice president of business development at Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing, a contract manufacturer. “Just because somebody has an autoinjector assembly line, the odds of it being able to do the one Lilly is using is probably slim,” he said.

In the meantime, though, patients are turning elsewhere. Due to the shortages, the FDA allows compounding pharmacies to step in and make versions of the drugs — and sell them for less. Zepbound and Wegovy retail for more than $1,000 a month — a compounded version can cost half that.

Unable to find a refill for her Zepbound at any local pharmacies, Carla Schiff Donnelly made an appointment to get a prescription for a compounded version of the drug.

At first the Pittsburgh-based attorney was reluctant to turn to an off-brand drug, but it’s her only option now. Lilly is “pushing people to the compound,” Donnelly said. “There’s been no talk about any supply issues with the compound. Zero.”

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